Tuesday, May 29, 2012
Redemption By Jews
Jacob was sixty-one when he came to the Philippines. He had been divorced two years before and had just wrapped up the sale of his carpentry company to a young man who had worked for him as an assistant for ten years. He decided to try the hot countries where he had never been to see if he might like to retire there.
The divorce was Jacob’s third. His wives accused him of insensitivity, irritability and ill temper, all of which were true. He had violent temper tantrums in which he smashed crockery, broke windows and hurled things at his terrified wives, fortunately without hitting them. They said he was insanely jealous and controlling, which was also true. All of these accusations were on the record for each of his divorces went to court. What his wives did not say, out of delicacy, or on the advice of their lawyers, or both, was that even in his fifties he was oversexed, demanding sex two or three times a day at the very least. His wives found this at first flattering but later tiring. They also did not put on the record that he was a raging antisemite, a significant portion of whose conversation was composed of rants against the Jews. He babbled the usual ragbag of inane shibboleths from the tradition of that particular obsession at them until they were driven almost mad. Perhaps the lawyers advised them not to mention this for Jacob himself was a Jew, on both his mother and father’s side, and it might introduce an element of confusion into the court proceedings. It should also be mentioned that Jacob was an exceedingly handsome man, highly intelligent, capable in business and very charming. Not in court, for obvious reasons, but privately to their lawyers (women, all) they mentioned that for some time after their marriage to Jacob they were very much in love and were convinced they had made a wonderful match.
When Jacob landed in Manila he stayed over only one night. For the past five years he had lived on a farm outside the medium sized city were he ran his business, commuting every day. Over this time he had come to see cities as the old prophets saw Sodom and Gomorrah, as cesspools of moral slackness and depravity. After his night surrounded by such dangers on every side he took a bus on a day’s journey to a small provincial town he had once read about in a magazine. Here he put up in a small hotel, not a tourist hotel for the town was far off the beaten track and had no tourist trade to speak of. The other guests were mostly business travelers, salesmen and small contractors. The management gave him a very reasonable monthly rate, including meals in the restaurant, and he decided to stay for at least a few months.
The town was on the sea as just about all towns there are, for the Philippines is a country of islands. It was hot, in the high thirties centigrade, with brilliant sunshine. Every day he walked to the beach a kilometer from the hotel and swam in the sea. In the afternoons he bicycled on the gravel roads leading out of town through little villages with houses built on stilts and thatched with straw, past groups of people working in the fields. He brought a sandwich and a bottle of juice with him and had a mid afternoon snack usually on a hill where he could look off into the distance while he ate. He was back at the hotel for supper at six. Afterward he climbed the stairs to his room on the third floor and took a nap.
Every evening at nine o’clock on the dot, for Jacob was man of clocklike routine, he left his room with its tiny balcony overlooking the town and descended the stairs to the lobby. At the foot of the stair he turned right, and, crossing in front of the main desk, passed through a set of double mahogany doors leading to the bar. The bar was much larger than needed for the guests because it served not only the hotel but also the surrounding community. Jacob sat at a table in the corner frequented by a small group of European and North American ex patriots. There were about twelve regulars, most retired and a little older than Jacob. Since it was Wednesday night and the full complement appeared only on Friday and Saturday evenings, there were only five present. As Jacob approached the table it struck him for the twentieth time how brightly their pale skins shone pink and strange in that sea of brown Filipinos made even browner by so much time outside under the hot season sun. This was accentuated for three of the men who had taken to combating baldness by shaving their heads. Jacob gave a general wave and, when the very attentive waiter appeared almost immediately, ordered a beer.
“Over there, Jacob,” said the man on his left, one of the billiard balls whose jet black eyebrows appeared as finger clouds crossing the face of a pale full moon. This was Carson, a retired pharmacist from the American mid west who lived in the hotel eight months a year and dabbled in local real estate. Jacob didn’t remember his first name or even if he had ever heard it. Everyone called him Carson. Even Carson referred to himself as Carson. Jacob turned his head to follow the pointing finger until his eyes came to a stop at a table where four young women were drinking beer.
“The closest one on the left,” said Carson.
The closest one on the left was wearing a bright yellow dress printed with figures of elegant blue and white flowers. She was beautiful with the particular kind of beauty that only a mixture of Melanesian, Spanish and American blood can bring. Even, perfectly formed features, high cheek bones, flawless skin, a lovely rich brown, jet black hair done up in a bun secured by a comb at the back of her head, and almond eyes which were perhaps Formosan, perhaps American Eurasian, or perhaps even the eyes of a Castilian Duchess come to rest after many years of restless wandering, here in this little provincial town. She was talking animatedly to her friends who were also speaking animatedly so that one wondered if they had some magical ability to speak and listen at the same time. There were no men at their table. While he was watching a young man approached the women, but after a brief, polite exchange, he went on his way.
“And what about her?” Jacob asked.
“A widow looking for a husband. Preferably a rich one.”
“How do you know?”
“I bribe waiters. I have intimate conversations with my barber.”
“How did she get to be a widow? Arsenic?”
“Ha ha, very funny. And with some of these women not far from the truth. In her case, however, it was perfectly above board. He was a fisherman and died in a storm at sea. That would be difficult for even the most malicious wife to manage.”
“What about age?”
“My informants tell me she is amenable with a top range of late sixties. That is, of course, if there is enough money involved so there is no need for her to be embarrassed by lack of a dowry. Her husband took the boat which her dowry helped to buy to the bottom of the sea with him.”
“She’s very beautiful, Carson. Perhaps a little rich for my blood.”
“O, I don’t know. This is a poor place and a Westerner of even modest savings is quite a catch, the equivalent of a multi millionaire back home.”
Jacob and his friends went on to talk of other things and he forgot about the young woman. But an hour later when the band got up to play he walked across the floor and asked her to dance. She rose, took his hand and followed him onto the floor. A waltz. She held herself at arm’s length of course, for it was unseemly for strangers to dance close like lovers or a married couple. When the dance was over she invited him to sit at her table and was introduced to her friends. Jacob bought a round of beer – a European beer, which they claimed, on its arrival and a few sips, to be inferior to their local beer with the added penalty of being twice as expensive. Jacob stayed at the table for the rest of the evening, dancing with Julia, the young woman, six or seven times and once with each of her girlfriends. When he was crossing the lobby to ascend the stairs to his room, Carson, who was leaning on the front desk chatting to the clerk, said to him, “well, I guess we won’t be seeing you for a while.”
Jacob chuckled politely but kept on his way.
Julia came to the bar on Wednesday and Saturday nights. Jacob spent these evenings at her table but they were seldom alone. There was at least one girlfriend, sometimes three or four. Julia worked in the laundry at the local hospital and the girlfriends were all co-workers. After two months of this, one evening, Jacob was sitting alone with one of the girlfriends, a plump, affable young woman named Rose. Julia was late coming for some family reason and the other two girlfriends at the table were up dancing. After she had scrutinized him for some moments with her dark eyes, Rosa asked, “are you married?”
“Divorced,” replied Jacob, not insulted at all by the question. He was delighted that someone was finally coming to the point.
“Are you going to live here full time now?”
“Julia doesn’t want to leave. She’s a home girl.”
Jacob said nothing to this and a few moments passed by until Rose brought her eyes back from the dance floor where they had wandered and asked, “if you married would you be bringing your property here?”
Rather blunt but how else could you ask such a question? Jacob mentioned a figure.
“You will invest here?”
“Julia has connections through which mortgages could be let out.”
“And how much would such mortgages amount to?”
“Two hundred thousand American.”
“Yes. Such beauty has a high premium.”
“The mortgages are to be let out to family?”
“Some but not all. Will you buy a house?”
“I suppose, yes.”
“Julia has three children, a mother and an older sister who live with her.”
“They come with her is what I mean to say.”
“And am I correct in assuming that it is marriage you have in mind?”
“Julia trusts me. I will make the arrangements.”
Two days later Jacob and Rose met in the hotel restaurant and made the arrangements. He gave her a sum in cash to cover the costs and six weeks later Julia and he were married in the Catholic Church for she and all her family were devout Catholics or at least Catholics. There were four bridesmaids, three flower girls and three hundred and fifty guests who did not have to jam themselves into the small parish hall for it was a warm nightand after loading their plates with food and clutching bottles of beer in the crooks of their arms, went out under the stars and ate sitting on the ground. Jacob, at Julia’s insistence, wore a rented tuxedo for the ceremony but changed into shorts and T shirt for the reception. Julia wore her bridal dress all evening until they left to catch the late night bus taking them to the other side of the island for their honeymoon.
The honeymoon was not a great success but not an unmitigated disaster either. They had sex but Julia’s participation was tepid and Jacobs’s rife with performance anxiety. They stayed in a rented cabin by the sea and went swimming every day. Afternoons Julia went off by herself to visit relatives in the area. They had supper at the local restaurant and danced afterward when the band came on later in the evening. After two weeks Jacob was quite smitten with his new wife but Julia was bored to tears with her new husband. He spoke of little besides house construction, brick laying and Jews. He had a great passion of hatred for the Jews and accused them of terrible deeds in high places. He was an atheist. He hated the Christian God as much as he hated the Jews. He made loud, peasant like sounds slurping his soup at the restaurant. He complained when she bought trinkets at the local market to take home to her relatives. His love making was almost unbearable. He aroused no desire in her so she had to pretend like a woman in a bordello. He didn’t seem to notice. When he slept he snored all night, tremendous pig like snortings from deep caverns beneath his long, fleshy, North American nose.
Jacob bought a modest but roomy house not far from the hotel. He did not consult his wife for it was his opinion that such matters should be decided by the male. Fortunately, by blind luck, he had bought just the house which Julia and her mother looked at and fell in love with some weeks before. This had something to do with the fact that the real estate agent recommended by Rosa was Julia’s cousin. It was single story, spreading itself out over most of a large lot. It had a central courtyard opening onto a back lot overlooking the sea. There were fifteen rooms, one of them a long, wide living room/dining room, with a lean to kitchen at the back. Julia’s three children, mother, older sister and two elderly women cousins moved in with them. In the mornings, after seeing the children off to school, the women set up their work stations in the living room. One of the cousins worked a loom upon which she wove rugs and wall hangings. Julia, her mother and sister wove straw baskets. The other cousin made ornaments people buy to decorate children’s birthday parties. They worked from nine in the morning till supper time. At noon Julia and her mother walked to the market to buy food. Usually mama, as Julia called her, cooked supper.
Julia insisted that Jacob replace the old stove in the kitchen. They went out together and she picked out a gas stove with a large oven. As soon as it was installed two of Julia’s younger sisters came every night except Saturday and worked from midnight until seven in the morning baking bread, muffins and cookies. After breakfast they loaded their baked goods onto a handcart and pushed it off to the local market. Jacob complained. “Somebody is running a bakery out of my kitchen.”
“Our kitchen,” Julia replied.
“OK. Somebody is running a bakery out of our kitchen.”
“They are my sisters.”
“And what does that have to do with it?”
“My sisters are welcome in my house.”
“All night, every night, running a bakery?”
“The oven is just perfect they say.”
“I’m sure they do. And I’m sure they find the free gas is also perfect.”
Jacob did not know that he was also buying the flour, yeast, raisins, baking powder, etc which went into the baked goods. Julia was an expert at jiggling household accounts so that turning a repair bill into bags of flour was no problem for her. But Jacob decided not to press his complaint. There were women everywhere, baking, weaving, painting walls, cooking, cleaning, talking, arguing and he felt a little intimidated. When the day ended the house filled up with cousins, nieces, nephews, uncles, aunts, a seemingly endless parade of Julia’s family. Some came and went. Others stayed for a month, others for longer, and still others never seemed to leave. It seemed to Jacob that there were at least five children, besides Julia’s, who lived with them full time. When he brought this up to Julia she was vague. When he spoke to mama she told him that yes, ‘some’ children were with them for a bit because their parents were off working in Manila. She was vague about exactly how many. They were good children who ate very little and only required a tiny space to sleep in. (actually they slept in hammocks hung in a room which thus resembled the focsle in an old time sailing ship) The parents would be back any day now she assured him. But months went by and they still had not come. Jacob learned their names. In the evenings he sometimes took them for a walk on the beach along with Julia’s children and bought them ice cream from the little stand a few hundred yards down from the house. Eventually he ceased to ask when the parents would arrive.
At the far west corner of the house was a two room suite, the rooms separated by a short hallway in turn closed off from the rest of the house by a rough plank door. Here, where it was quiet no matter what was going on in the rest of the house, Jacob had his bedroom. The second room served as his study. Julia slept with him here once or twice a week. The rest of the week she slept in some other room. Where he was unsure. At first Jacob complained but eventually he gave it up. He was of an age when often his number one priority was a night of undisturbed sleep. Julia was restless in bed. She often got up in the middle of the night and helped her sisters baking bread. Mama was especially solicitous of Jacob’s sleep. After he said good night and went through the door to his suite she had one of the older children help her cover the door with two heavy rugs to muffle the sound from the main part of the house. Jacob slept well in his bedroom and when the noise and bustle in the house became intolerable to him he had a quite place to retreat away from it all.
Four months after the wedding, on a rainy day, when the whole world seemed composed of rain beating on the steel roof and water rushing from the gutters, Rose came through the kitchen and onto the patio where Jacob was having his coffee watching the torrents of rain fall into the sea. He was happy to see her for he considered Rose an affable, business like person with whom one could deal in a direct manner and get some results. This was very different from the women in his house who were slippery as eels, elusive as weasels. Rose carried a cup of mama’s coffee with her and sat down opposite him at the ornate wrought iron table. After the usual formalities and a pause, Rose, as was her way, got to the point.
“The mortgages,” she said.
“O yes,” said Jacob.
“Julia has a cousin lawyer who can draw up the agreements. He has already done the preliminary work.”
“Fine,” said Jacob.
“He can come tomorrow afternoon for the signing of the papers and the transfer of the money. You can go to the bank in the morning.”
In the morning Jacob went to the bank and made the arrangements. The lawyer came after lunch, an enormously fat man who sat at the long kitchen table and unburdened an immense briefcase of a tall pile of documents. Jacob signed. Julia signed. The lawyer signed. Mama and the older sister signed as witnesses. They were small amount mortgage agreements, a thousand here, two there, the largest being ten thousand. Some were on agricultural land, some on houses and small businesses in town. When this was completed Jacob made out and signed a series of cheques certified on the spot by a clerk sent over by the bank. The documents and cheques then went into the lawyer’s case and mama and the older sister brought out several plates piled high with the younger sisters’ baking and a tray of gleaming bottles of beer wet from the ice bucket. The lawyer proposed an elaborate and comical toast and everyone laughed heartily. When the plates and tray were empty the lawyer rose and, accompanied by Julia in her best dress with her hair drawn up in a bun with a comb as it was the first time Jacob saw her, left through the front door to climb into his late model Japanese car to drive the documents and cheques around to the owners of the properties. Jacob walked them to the door and then went to his suite for his afternoon nap.
Julia did not come back until after dark. Jacob was having his beer on the patio and she came out to join him. She talked excitedly about where she had gone and the people she had seen, for driving in the car and meeting with so many people happy to conclude a hopeful business arrangement, stimulated her. Jacob listened impatiently. When she wound down he asked her once again about the baking sisters.
“I suppose you want their children to go hungry,” Julia said.
“What does that have to do with a bakery being operated in my house?”
“That’s how they feed their children.”
“Don’t they have husbands?”
“The husbands are fishermen. How can a fisherman feed all those children?”
Jacob had no answer for this. Julia took the opportunity to rise in triumphant and stately dignity and go back into the house. When he came through the kitchen mama stared at him censoriously. The elderly cousins sitting at the table turned their eyes away. He continued down the hallway to his study where he sat in his armchair and brooded.
One morning, some months later, Jacob cornered Julia alone in the kitchen. All of the other women had stayed up all night baking for a festival and were now off selling their wares at the market. He sat down at the long table opposite her and said, “mortgages have income.”
“Of course mortgages have income,” replied Julia.
“Then where is it?”
“The lawyer says some payments are late and others have been deferred for unavoidable reasons. The income from the others is just fine.”
“Yes. Just fine.”
“What does that mean, ‘just fine’?”
“It means it went to places it was needed.”
“The Fuentes cousin needed dental work.”
“School just started and the children needed clothing and supplies.”
“Consuela’s husband had his tools stolen and they had to be replaced. Carpentry tools are expensive as you should know.”
“But Julia, don’t you see that mortgage money is capital money? If the income is spent on expenses then the money is frittered away and the capital disappears.”
“Of course what?”
“Necessary things must be dealt with whatever you call the money. After all you can call it various names but in the long run it is just money.”
“Well, I would like you to give me an accounting of the mortgages, income, expenses and so on.”
“No problem. The lawyer is good at giving accountings and making lists. I will speak to him.”
Whether Julia spoke to the lawyer or not Jacob did not know but some time passed by and he was still without an accounting. Six times he spoke to Julia who each time claimed the lawyer was about to appear any day but he never did. The last time she gave him this answer Jacob became enraged. He shouted at her in the kitchen. He chased her around the long table but she was much too lithe and quick for the likes of an aging, arthritic carpenter. He grabbed a cup from the table and was about to throw it at her when mama and the two baking sisters appeared in the doorway. They stared at him with terrible neutral looks on their faces. He placed the cup back on the table and went out through the patio door. He could hear the kitchen filling up with the other women, talking in excited voices. No doubt they had ways to rid themselves of unreasonable foreigners. Perhaps they threw them down a well then buried them alive with a rain of useless mortgage agreements, piano lessons, gas ovens, dental bills and the mouths of hungry fishermen’s children.
Julia refused to speak to him for a month after this event. She did not come to sleep in his room. The other women spoke to him but distantly. It was a week before the little children came to sit on his lap as they had before. But after another month it blew over. Julia came back to sleep with him but now only once a week. The children once again ragged him after supper until he took them down the beach for ice cream. Mama began once again to tease him occasionally about the fact that he was ten years older than her and the baking sisters to leave a few delicacies for his morning coffee. He had to admit to himself that these women had generous hearts. They did not carry grudges and they wanted very much that their house not become a place of war and division.
Mama and her daughters were possessed of an age old tradition of household gender relations. The man was officially recognized as the head of the house, the titular power. Jacob was seated at the head of the table and fed the choice cuts of meat. His coffee cup was filled before he mustered a desire that it be so. On all official occasions, family gatherings, he was treated like a grandee. His clothes were cleaned, pressed, adjusted and fussed over as if he were the King of France or the Emperor of all the Russias. On very special occasions one of the older sisters even shaved him for they claimed he did not pay close enough attention to the corners. He sat in the big chair in the living room while all the guests came to greet him, shaking his hand and kissing him on his cheek. Adorable children were plunked into his lap and he obediently fed them with the chocolate candies the woman had stuffed into his pocket. Even though he was not a Christian he was called upon to say the grace before meals, taught to him by Julia. His suite at the back of the house was sacrosanct. When he was sleeping the children were kept away from it with a stern discipline. In matters of household renovations he was deferred to. Was the patio to be retiled? Julia brought it up with him. Should the screened porch on the front be enlarged? Mama discussed it with Jacob over coffee. They allowed themselves to be guided by his wishes.
In the matter of children’s expenses, however, it was another matter. After all men are lazy creatures of pleasure and did not bear children. In such matters their wishes, instructions, were to be interpreted in a broad fashion and not taken literally. Jacob did not want to pay for art lessons for Julio, Julia’s eldest? Fine. Then the grocery money could be squeezed, extra loaves of bread baked. The contractor cousin who did the patio could be asked to give a finder’s fee. That dense man should have offered it himself before he was asked. As a last resort there was the mortgage income, managed by Julia out of an ancient iron safe, a relic from the days of the Spanish and left in the house by its former inhabitants who perhaps did not have the energy to carry its many hundreds of pounds out the door. But only as a last resort for Julia was a careful manager. Not long after the letting out of the mortgages she was a part owner of several hectares of crop land and had a controlling share in a fabric shop.
All of this went along reasonably well but it was obvious that something was building up in Jacob. He began to feel he was living at the edge of a terrible tyranny of women. To be fair to the poor man he did his best to find some way to release the pressure and stop paranoia blossoming in his mind as a single, overwhelming obsession. But he failed. He became moody. He spent long hours alone in his room. Then one day he got up from a night of broken sleep and changed his mind about everything. He dressed in his old carpentry overalls, stormed into the main part of the house and began shouting at the women. Even Julio, who was often able to calm him, was brushed off to the side. The women scattered like chickens before a diving hawk. Lifting up young children into their arms they rushed out the kitchen door onto the patio.
Jacob stood in the doorway and hurled insults at them. They were deceivers, witches, devils from the nether regions of hell, thieves, manipulators, foul fornicators, workers of dark arts, destroyers of the minds of men, evil, devouring vulvas, depraved monsters. He would have no more to do with them. He would have no more to do with their money sucking brats, their one long endless meal, their decorations and renovations, their whinings and wheedlings, their cajolings, their cunning, their steady, inexorable chisellings. All this he was leaving behind him. All this he was now, at this very moment and forever, banishing from his mind. “No more!” he screeched at them in a spray of spittle. “No more you evil, torturing, squeezing bitches. No more!” And with that he collapsed in a heap in the doorway.
The women had watched this performance quite dispassionately as if they were watching a speech given by a politician from Manila. But when he collapsed they rushed in a body to see if he was dead. He wasn’t. He was breathing regularly and his pulse was strong. Mama sent one of the daughters for the doctor. The older sister brought a blanket and spread it out on the floor beside him. They tugged and rolled him until he was lying face up on the blanket and lifted him up with many hands and carried him into the bedroom. They laid him on his bed, positioning his hands on his stomach as if he were laid out in his coffin.
When the doctor came out of the bedroom into the kitchen he said that Jacob was perfectly healthy. “The man is as sound as a two year old donkey.”
“And of much the same nature,” Julia replied.
The doctor laughed. After pocketing his fee, delicately folded into a linen envelope, he wrote a prescription for a sedative. “Three days in bed,” he said. “All that shouting and frothing at the mouth is hard on the system.”
Jacob was enervated by his bout of rage. He lay quietly in his bed studying the ceiling while the pills the doctor gave him loosened his muscles and set his mind pleasantly drifting. Julio sat by his bedside reading one of his textbooks. His concentration was intense. He turned the pages with a deft movement of his right hand. After watching him for a while Jacob reached over, covered the text with his hand and looked into Julio’s face, a pleasant, evenly featured face every bit as beautiful as Julia’s. “I am afraid, my dear Julio, that for many years I have been wrongly maligning the Jews. What are they, after all, but poor fellow wanderers seeking to place their feet firmly on the ground wherever their ill stared fate has led them? For this they should be hated? I don’t think so. Hereafter my policy will be not to love them, for that would be condescending, but to create for them in my mind a warm limbo of nonjudgment where they can be free to be whatever they are going to be. As there is, apart from myself, not a single Jew in this town or even on this island, they will not notice my change of heart but I will and that is what counts.” Then he smiled and Julio smiled back. He removed his hand from the book, replaced it with the other on his stomach and went to sleep.
He did not rise from his bed for three days. Julia looked after him. She was careful not to say anything which might upset him and he himself avoided all contentious subjects. He asked her about the children. He talked about the weather, wondering why it was that the people here on the island dreaded the rainy season while he, a foreigner, loved it dearly. He told her of his childhood when he and his brothers slid down snow covered hills on a wooden toboggan and made snowballs with their mittened hands to hurl at one another. He spoke of his mother, a large, warm hearted woman whose sons teased her mercilessly. He asked her to bring him an umbrella from the market and gave her two one hundred dollar bills from the drawer beside the bed. He told her to spend what was left over on clothing for the children.
When he rose on the fourth morning, before breakfast and his morning coffee, for a great necessity lay upon him, Jacob removed all the furniture from the study excepting the roll top desk holding his personal papers. Julia, mama and a staying over cousin helped him carry it out the back door and put it in the storage shed. The women wanted to clean the resulting dusty corners but he would not allow them. He took broom, dustpan, mop and pail from the closet off the kitchen and cleaned the room himself. When he was done he had breakfast on the patio and then walked to the lumber store pulling one of the toddlers along behind him in a bright blue wagon.
That afternoon a truck delivered a pile of lumber and plastic bags filled with nails and hardware. Jacob had the men carry the lumber through the house and lay it on the floor of the study. When they were gone, after mama had fed them cinnamon buns and coffee at the kitchen table and Jacob tucked tips into their pockets at the door, he began constructing a workbench along one wall of the room. It took him three days to finish and then he put a series of shelves and pegboards above it on the wall. The women kept peeking in to see what he was doing but they did not ask any questions, fearing it might set him off. They watched him silently for a few moments and then left. When the toddlers came he did not chase them away. He sat them in the corner and gave them blocks and wood shavings to play with.
When everything was finished he closed the door and would not let any adults see inside for two months. He spent ten hours a day inside the room he now referred to as the shop. When the toddlers knocked on the door and called his name he let them in and reclosed the door. When they were tired of playing with the blocks he gave them he let them out again. Sometimes he went to the lumber store and brought back chunky blocks of wood. In the evening he strolled along the beach stopping to look at the fishing boats pulled up on the sandy beach.
When the two months were up he opened the door and thereafter seldom closed it. Everyone came to look. The toddlers squeezed through the legs of the women and headed for the corner where Jacob had left a pile of ends and shavings. Along the workbench was a line of fishing boats carved from softwood and painted the same bright colours the fishermen painted their own boats. There were masts, tiny sails, oars, and figures of fishermen, some looking off over the sea, others leaning over the gunwales pulling up their nets. There were twenty or so, all of slightly different sizes and designs. They were propped up with small chocks. They were awash in the soft light of the day glow lamps Jacob hung from the ceiling, and, as he had painted the top of the bench blue, it was as if they were floating upon a magically created, strangely calm, indoor sea. The women’s eyes grew as round as saucers. They entered the room and spread themselves out along the bench peering closely, sucking in their breath in silent admiration.
The next day while Jacob was drinking his morning coffee with Julia on the patio, he handed her a letter. The letter gave her sole rights to the mortgages he had signed a few years before. It listed them – the lawyer cousin had done this for him – in a long column extending to a second page. It was notarized by the lawyer, signed by Jacob and witnessed by two clerks in the lawyer’s office. Julia read the letter, thanked him very solemnly and kissed him on the cheek. What was hers practically was now hers in the eyes of the law. She showed the letter to her mother and put it away in the safe.
In his sixty-fifth year Jacob took a piece of white wood and etched upon its surface “Forgive me dear Jews”, first in English and then, below in letters the same size, in Latin. The translation was supplied by the lawyer who spent his Saturday afternoons reading Tacitus and Ovid in the original. Lettering complete, he framed it with a thin border of mahogany and hung it on the wall above his workbench.
When Julia saw the plaque she asked him what it meant. “The Jews whom I hated for so many years have redeemed me,” he said. It was obvious from Julia’s expression that she did not understand but he gave no further explanations.
When Julia came into the kitchen her mother asked, “What did he say?”
“Something about Jews and redeeming but I really don’t understand it.”
“Seems a strange thing to put up on the wall when there is not a Jew within a hundred miles. Did he do bad things to them when he was young?”
“No. He just hated them. He feels bad because he hated them. I suppose the plaque is a propitiation, a kind of blood payment. Maybe they do that where he comes from.”
Mama said nothing but she was worried Jacob might be going crazy again. Perhaps all the carving was only a temporary abatement of his madness. For her the Jews were people she heard about in school who had a tiny country half way round the world. To make plaques asking them for forgiveness as if they were spirits floating around in the air, seemed to her not quite sane.
The night his first wife, dead sixteen years, three days and fourteen hours, knocked on the door of the security wall surrounding Cornelius’ compound was a disturbing one. The time elapsed since her death had included his fifty-fourth into his seventieth year. The watchman who answered the door, a distant cousin of his second wife, didn’t recognize her for he had never seen her in the land of the living. But as the dead woman was dressed well and spoke her request to have Cornelius summoned in a clear, educated diction, he let her into the warm watchman’s shed while he went off to the main house to talk to the boss. It was raining, a cold, steady rain coming down in a medium drone for so many days now that it seemed to Raoul, the watchman, that it had always been raining and sunny days, or even cloudy rainless days, were a distant dream.
Cornelius was in his bedroom and just about to disrobe and climb into bed when the knock came on the door.
“What kind of woman?” he asked.
“About thirty. Black hair, hazel eyes. She’s wearing a heavy cloak and over that a slicker like fishermen wear. The slicker is even blacker than her hair.”
“Pretty. Pale. In fact, when I think of it, exceptionally pale.”
A description general enough to include any of a thousand women in the city surrounding.
“She refused to give one. Said it would be indelicate.”
This was not a word Raoul would ordinarily use. It’s vagueness, the lack of a concrete object to hang its hat on, so to speak, would normally have aroused in him a mild disgust. Cornelius decided that the woman must be more than pretty; she must be beautiful. For Raoul, who had an eye for women, her beauty would make the word real for him.
“Very well. Show her into the first parlor.”
Raoul smiled a thin smile that was very close to being a smirk. Perhaps he thought it amusing that such a beautiful young woman would come to visit such an old man late at night. If so Cornelius found the smile deplorable and was about to say something but Raoul, realizing that his expression had let slip an emotion he should be concealing, assumed his usual passionless mask, did an about turn and marched quickly through the door. Five minutes later, after washing his face and hands and combing his hair in the adjoining bathroom, Cornelius followed.
The first parlor was left off the entrance vestibule, a smallish room with two sofas pulled up to a wood burning fireplace. In addition to the entrance off the vestibule there was a door at the rear off a corridor leading to the stair descending to the kitchen and the servants’ quarters. Cornelius entered through this door, first clearing his throat for he thought it proper to announce himself before entering a room where a guest awaits, especially if it is a woman.
Wood and paper were always laid and Raoul must have lit it for she was sitting on the nearest sofa gazing into the fire. She did not turn towards him though it was clear from the tilt of her head, the line of her shoulders that she heard him but deliberately decided to slow her response. She didn’t turn full toward him until he reached the sofa. Always one to milk a dramatic situation, Sophia. After all it is seldom that a wife, dead sixteen years, returns to confront her husband.
“Good evening, Cornelius.”
“Good evening, my dear.” Cornelius replied as if she had just returned, perhaps, from a visit to her sister’s, a day’s ride north. Cornelius was a polite man and thought it appropriate in such a bizarre situation to let the dead party set the tone.
“You have a new watchman I see.”
“A dull witted, phlegmatic type.”
Cornelius thought about this for a moment and then replied, “Raoul could be described as comfortable in his groove but I wouldn’t call him dull witted. The opposite, I’m afraid – very clever.”
“I believe he thinks me a lady of the night.”
“And indeed you are, Sophia, though a different from the kind Raoul is thinking.”
“So you still entertain ladies of the night, Cornelius?”
“On occasion but not here. I go there.”
“And your present wife?”
“Dead to me as you are Sophia. She lives in the guest wing and we see each other once a week for dinner.”
“She was too young, Cornelius. Such a thing was inevitable. Does she have a lover?”
“I believe Raoul is her lover.”
“Not much of an improvement.”
“Although he looks older, Raoul is only forty.”
“And you, Cornelius, how old are you?”
“An old man.”
“Do you feel as if you are an old man?”
“Sometimes, but mostly no.”
“In the mornings, for instance, when I first get out of bed.”
“Come sit by me,” she said, patting the sofa seat beside her.
“I’ll sit, but not there,” Cornelius said. He walked behind her and sat on the other sofa at the end closest to her.
“Shy, are we?”
“You are dead, Sophia. It’s only natural I prefer to keep a certain distance between us.”
“There was a certain distance between us when I was alive, Cornelius.”
“Yes. But isn’t there always a certain distance between two living beings even if they are lovers or husband and wife?”
“Always the philosophical one, Cornelius.”
“I’m afraid I don’t see the philosophy, Sophia. What I said was merely a commonplace observation.”
Sophia took this mild rebuke without offence, smiling into the fire. After examining it for a moment, studying the play of blue and yellow flames licking up from the growing char, she said. “You are forgetting your manners, Cornelius. You should offer me tea and a bite to eat.”
“The dead eat?”
This surprised Cornelius but then he supposed if she could walk and speak she very well may eat as well so he left the room by the back door and descended the stair into the empty kitchen. He made tea and assembled a tray of bread and butter, cold chicken, cookies and an apple. When the tea was steeped he set it on the tray and, returning to Sophia, placed it on the coffee table before her. Without a word she set to consuming the contents of the tray with a steady yet unhurried determination until it was all gone. Then she poured herself a cup of tea and, balancing cup and saucer on one knee, leaned back on the sofa.
“Thank you, Cornelius. It’s been a long time since I ate last.”
“Oh, some years I suppose.”
“Do the dead eat in their graves?”
“No but when they rise from them they do.”
“The word as simple description. No religious connotations. Are you still an atheist? They say men become religious when they grow old.”
“Not an atheist. Not even an agnostic. I’m not interested in intellectual speculations anymore.”
“Well if you’ve left the intellect behind then what about feeling, Cornelius? Have you left that behind as well?”
“No. I have come to see that the feelings of the moment which I once looked upon with distain, as our only reality.”
“So no God?”
“One part of me has no argument with God but another sees Him as obviously a projection of the human ego. Filling the universe with projections seems to me a kind of horror show yet, on the whole, it’s what we seem to do.”
“So that we are not alone?”
“I suppose, although for me having relationships with imaginary beings is far worst than being alone. But what about you, Sophia? Do the dead have insights into these matters?”
“Not really. Women, as you know Cornelius, have a connection to the sensate world few men have. That suffices for many of us and I am one of them. Although I can’t claim to speak for the others, death brought me no revelations or mystical insights.”
“And what was it like to lay there for sixteen years, my dear?”
“Four weeks only, Cornelius, and then I left the grave. During those four weeks I had no consciousness of passing time, just a kind of steady hum, so to speak, not at all disagreeable.”
Cornelius did not reply to this. He felt that it would be impolite to ask for the details of her disinterment and inquisitorial to ask what she had been doing since that time. He glanced at the tray thinking he might fill the gap in conversation with a cookie but they were all gone. Even the teapot, a glass one, was empty. In life Sophia, despite her trim figure, her long, lithely muscled body, had been a hearty eater. It seems she was so even in death.
“You will be wondering what I have been doing since I left the grave, Cornelius. And perhaps also how I left the grave. You were always curious, a man hungry for details.”
“Now that you bring it up I must admit that I am curious.”
“Then you will be disappointed. The dead know as little as the living it seems. As far as leaving the grave goes one moment I was in it and then the next I was out, standing on the bank of a river, with heavy twilight coming down. How I got there or by what process, I am truly ignorant.”
“But no one reported a disturbance of the grave. Surely the caretakers would have noticed?”
“Of that I know nothing. I have never returned to the churchyard. Why should I? Perhaps the grave might reopen and swallow me up.”
“But where have you been in the meantime, Sophia?”
“Close by, actually. As you know some ways up the river there is an area of wasteland inhabited by a few impoverished rural people. I have a cottage there at the edge of the moor.”
“But how could you afford a cottage?”
“Jewelry, Cornelius. You seem to have forgotten how much you loved me, dear man. You buried me with all my rings, bracelets, broaches, necklaces, pendants and whatever. A small fortune. Not to one who lives grandly like yourself but to a poor cottager more than enough.”
“You sold them, then?”
“Of course. I hitched a ride on a river barge to the great city and sold them there. You will remember that I knew jewelry very well.” “Yes.”
“And I knew from my previous time in the great city where to go, who to deal with.” “Yes, of course.”
“I was a courtesan, Cornelius.”
“Yes, I know.”
“You know but you were never comfortable with me mentioning it, were you?”
“No, but that’s my upbringing, Sophia. You will have to forgive me. Believe me I have never for a moment judged you or thought lesser of you because of it.” “I know that, Cornelius. And the arts my past brought with me to the marriage were not to be despised, were they dear?”
“Not at all, Sophia. Rather they were to be treasured and applauded. For nine years we were happy together and surely our sexual joy, our satisfaction in our play together was the fundament of our happiness. One sees this even more clearly as we get older.”
“I wouldn’t know Cornelius. After all I’m only thirty.”
“And the sixteen years?”
“Seems not to have had the least effect.”
Cornelius took his eyes from the fire and looked at her closely. For a moment the afterimage of the coloured flames moved across the surface of her face but then vanished to reveal the very pale skin as smooth and perfect as porcelain. Its paleness was accentuated by the frame of black hair drawn up in a chignon secured by a delicate silver comb; accentuated to such a degree that the skin shone with a kind of mild luminescence. She was right. In fact, if anything, Sophia seemed younger than the last time he remembered seeing her in the bloom of healthy young womanhood.
“I suppose the dead, being dead, do not age.”
“I suppose,” she replied.
Cornelius rose and put a log on the fire. With the poker he positioned it in the center of the flames and pressed it down. When he came back to the sofa, Sophia was standing.
“I have to be going now, Cornelius.”
“Yes I do. Most surely in fact.”
“Do you sleep in your grave, Sophia?”
“No, no. I sleep in a stone room completely devoid of light but not in the grave. I built the room onto the cottage with my own hands. I am afraid that although I look quite alive that I am a creature of shadows. I can tolerate mild daylight and can go about for an hour or two on cloudy, rainy days but on most days I sleep in the room.”
“But you eat, Sophia.”
“Yes, dear, I do. But the daylight is not for me and dawn not far away.”
“I could drive you in the car.”
“I have my own car waiting at the gate.”
“But perhaps I could accompany you nonetheless.”
“Why, Cornelius? The dead don’t fear the dark and there is nothing I fear any longer from the living.”
“I was not thinking of that.”
“Then of what?”
“I would like the pleasure of your company.”
They were in the vestibule. Sophia retrieved her cloak and slicker from the closet, settling the cloak loosely about her shoulders. She looked at Cornelius sharply. He hadn’t aged much. He was a bit stooped, yes, but his bony, aquiline face would strangely belie his years for some time to come. He was gazing at her with a steady, expectant patience.
“I am dead, Cornelius.”
“Then why did you come?”
“For old time’s sake I suppose.”
“The old times are the things which are truly dead, Sophia.”
“That may be but so am I.”
“But you walk about; you smile; you speak. How can you be dead?”
“I don’t know. I just know that I am no longer connected to the living.”
“Neither am I, dear Sophia.”
“I inhabit the night, Cornelius. Storms and clouds are my sunshine, bright day my fear and avoidance. I breath, apparently, but only shallowly. Sometimes I wonder what I breath. Particles of dark perhaps. Yet I don’t perceive the dark in the same way the living do. It is my natural milieu, my comfort. I do not age. Surely this cuts me off from the living whose iron law is aging. I eat with relish, yes, but I suspect this is merely habit. I am not a natural creature, Cornelius. I speak to the living in a series of symbols I must consciously remember the meaning of. I spent the first five years in my cottage without seeing or speaking to a soul and felt not the slightest lack. I do not lust after the living like the popular tales say the dead do. I have no desire for blood, either human or animal. Yet I am not a normal living being. If there is blood moving in my veins it does not move in the way it used to do. I still have my beauty but it is the beauty of a stone. I see in your eyes that you see it as a precious stone but a precious stone is still a stone.”
“Still, I would accompany you.”
“To your cottage.”
“And sleep in a cold stone room with a dead woman?”
“No. To talk to a dead woman when she awakes in the evening.”
“Meagre fare, dear man, for one as hot blooded as you used to be.”
“My want of women in that way is dying.”
“But not dead?”
“Well then,” she said and put her hand upon the door handle.
“Perhaps just as far as the moor.”
“I suppose, if you must. You were kind enough to receive me. I can at least give you that.”
So Cornelius left with Sophia but he did not part with her at the moor. He went with her to the cottage and the two of them lived together there not as husband and wife but as brother and sister. His people assumed he was dead. A brooding, eccentric man, no doubt he slipped himself into the waters of the moor to avoid the sufferings of old age. When the legally required time had elapsed he was declared deceased and his wife inherited. A month later she married Raoul.
The cottage has one glass window. Its light can be seen for miles across the flat moor land it inhabits. Lit by two candles and the open fireplace it shines all night long no matter what the weather or the time of year. Sometimes, during the day, a man can be seen in the yard; an old man sawing and splitting wood he gathers from a series of poplar copses a quarter mile distant. He waves if someone waves to him but if approached he makes it quite clear that he is not interested in conversation or human company.
Some say in the heavy twilight they have seen the old man walking with a young beautiful woman. The more bestial among them say she is his incubus which he has called from the infernal regions to satisfy his lust. But most believe this to be a nasty invention arising from their own morbid desires and projected onto a harmless old man who prefers to spend his last few years alone, away from others. He comes to the little village twice a year for supplies. He is polite but distant and leaves immediately once his business is completed.
Occasionally local boys make an excursion to creep toward the window on dark nights, to peer in and discover its mysteries, but as they exit the bushes into the open yard, croaching low to conceal themselves, they become seized by such an awful fear they turn and run the two miles back to the road at breakneck speed. They are too ashamed of their cowardice to make up stories of what they saw, or rather, what they did not see. They make a pact of silence between themselves and honor it.
What they would see, if fear did not prevent them from crossing the yard, is the simplest of all things - a man and woman sitting before a fire at a round table eating bread and cheese and drinking tea. They are companionable, interrupting their meal frequently to speak to one another in a lively manner. The man is old but somehow in their communications age is lifted from his shoulders and tossed into one of the darkened corners. The woman is young, pale and beautiful. Her beauty is the striking beauty men sometimes see from across a room, a beauty which leaves them shattered and reminds them how deep their loneliness is and how impossible the chasm they must cross to relieve it.
Jason Bouganville was seventy-five when he had his first exhibition in his hometown. Fortunately he had been selling out of galleries far away on the east coast for forty years, earning a modest income, which, considering his frugality and the simplicity of his way of living, was more than enough. His works were expressionist, not a popular taste in his part of the country where gallery bread and butter were realist paintings of animals, grain elevators and nostalgic depictions of cowboys and Indians. In his selling city his name was well known among people concerning themselves with painting and the arts, but in his hometown, excepting for a handful of friends and fellow painters, he was unknown. He preferred it that way. Although he had been asked many times he never went to the big city he sold in. “They get the paintings,” he would tell his frustrated agent on the phone. “If they want a smoozer, hire an actor.”
When the owner of the gallery, a young man with more family money than artistic discernment, first approached him Jason said no but his friends ganged up on him, claiming he was paranoid, falsely modest, a revengeful egoist, ungrateful, unpatriotic, a big phony, lacking in the courage of his convictions and so on. This did not disturb him unduly for he was old enough to realize he was all of these things in some measure and also that the pull of fame is often stronger for its friends than for the central applicant. He gave in. He allowed one of his painter pals to negotiate a contract with the gallery owner and when he was handed the contract at a dinner party at his friend’s house, he gave it a cursory glance and signed. He was therefore unaware that he had signed a document committing him to attend the first full day of the ten day exhibition and did not find out until six months later. Included in the envelope the owner sent him three weeks before the opening was a copy of the contract and a personal note saying how much the owner was looking forward to making his acquaintance. Jason was horrified.
He knew not to complain to his friend who had negotiated the contract. After all, the personal appearance clause was standard and Jason was the one who signed the contract without reading it properly. If he complained to his friends in general they would simply reaccuse him of all the things they accused him of before which would be a ridiculous waste of time. If he complained to Evelyn, his wife, she would pour over his head buckets of sarcasm and drollery; if to his agent in the far away city, cynical snickers, a lecture for allowing an amateur to negotiate a contract and a powerful undercurrent of it serves you right. He had no one to turn to so he explained the whole thing to the dog who was very understanding and sympathetic. At the end of ten minutes of salty complaints the dog licked one of the bony shins sticking out of his baggy army surplus shorts. Jason patted him on the head, fed him two wieners and forgot about the whole thing for several days.
Sometimes with knotty problems the best thing is to ignore them for a while. Something just might happen so that the problem solves itself. This is what happened in Jason’s case. A week before the show was to open he was sitting on the front deck drinking a cup of tea when his brother drove up the driveway.
Robert, Jason’s brother, was a wanderer who had started wandering when he was sixteen and now, at the age of seventy, was still wandering. He was an industrial mechanic and had spent most of his work life up north in the mines. Since his retirement, at age sixty, he traveled the country, coast to coast, in an old quarter ton with a camper on the back. Sometimes he stayed with friends in the east who took him out on fishing boats. Sometimes he helped an old pal seed on his farm in the Peace River country. In the early spring he helped work a salmon weir in BC. Last summer, he and three friends made a raft and floated down the Saskatchewan. When he retired he built a straw bale cabin at the back of Jason’s land where he spent two months in the summer and three or four in the winter. When Robert was in residence for even a week there would be more visitors than Jason had in a whole year. He had twelve children by four different women, and these children all had children of their own. So numerous were they that Jason had a file of their names and birthdays. There were fifty-seven grandchildren and ten great grandchildren. It cost Jason several thousand dollars a year to give them birthday and Christmas presents, an expense he paid out gladly; he and his wife, Evelyn, looked with horror upon a child’s birthday passing without a substantial present. Evelyn bought the girl’s presents and he the boy’s. There were thirty boys and twenty-seven girls. Surrounding Robert’s cabin was a motley collection of old trailers with flattened tires and campers sitting atop poplar pole sawhorses. In the warm season when Robert was home they were filled with children aged three to eighteen.
Jason took two steaks from the freezer as he always did when Robert arrived and they had supper together. Later they had tea on the deck. When Jason had listened to the latest travel stories – Robert had been down in the Sierra Madre mountains in Mexico – he said, “Robbie your truck needs the engine rebuilt.”
“How much for the parts?”
“A thousand or so.”
“I have an easy way for you to make a thousand dollars. Actually fifteen hundred so you can replace your fenders.”
Robert looked at him suspiciously. He asked, “Doing what?”
“No,” said Robert.
“I wouldn’t know what to say. All that art lingo.”
“I could coach you with a foolproof system. You wouldn’t have to learn a single new word.”
Robert was watching the dog sneaking up on the cows munching grass on the other side of the barbed wire fence. “My lifters are bad and she’s starting to burn a lot of oil.”
“Do you want to hear my system?”
“You don’t say a word until someone says something to you. This is what they’ll say. ‘Jason, that painting with the yellow splotches, it’s just marvelous!’ You say, “Thank you. That’s very kind of you.’ They say, ‘I do think it’s the best thing you’ve ever done.’ You pause for a moment and then say, ‘You know I think you might just be right.’ That’s it.”
“ ‘Thank you.’ ‘That’s very kind of you.’ And ‘I think you just might be right’?”
“Yes. That’s all you need.”
“And what if they ask me some weird questions?”
“You pause, look out the window or at least off into the middle distance, and say, ‘What do you think?’ When they answer you say, ‘You know, I’ve never really looked at it that way but I believe you may just be right.’ “
“And what if someone asks personal questions?”
“They won’t because they don’t know me. I’ll let the ten or twelve friends who might show up in on the deal. They won’t bother you. If somebody wants to set up a meeting say you are going away for six months. If they insist on a phone number give them Evelyn’s. If you are in a quandary act confused and ask them to get you a coffee. Most people assume everyone with white hair and wrinkles is senile. Just smile in a vague way and they will go away figuring the show is a way to raise money for medical treatment or funeral expenses.”
“In two weeks.”
“Can I order the parts right away or do I have to wait until after the show?”
“OK. It’s a deal.” They shook hands.
The parts arrived in three days. Jason helped Robert with the overhaul. He handed him wrenches and held things in place. When it was finished they drove to the wreckers and bought two fenders. When they were installed Robert built a poplar pole structure over the truck and covered it with plastic. Then he filled a few spots, sanded, masked and gave it three coats of paint with the air gun. When it was dry he removed the structure and called Jason over to take a look.
“Like brand new,” said Jason.
“Yes. It turned out fine.”
“She’ll be on the road another ten years.”
The day before opening day Robert came over to Jason’s cabin for supper. “Nervous?” Jason asked.
“Don’t be, Robbie. Think of it as an adventure. There is no way you can mess it up. We look so much alike even if you just stand there and nod they will assume you are being my reputed obtuse and uncommunicative self. Which is fine. They will think you are concealing some marvelous enigma. Not only a terrible hermit but an enigmatic terrible hermit. It will increase sales by ten percent.”
When Robert arrived at the gallery the owner put him in a corner furnished with three armchairs and a coffee table. Robert tried all three chairs until he found the most comfortable. He was tired. The night before he stayed up late watching a movie. He took two throw cushions from the other chairs and made himself more comfortable. He snuggled down, laid his head on one of the cushions atop the arm and went to sleep.
An hour later the owner, very nervous and diffident, woke him by gently nudging his shoulder. When Robert opened his eyes the owner said, “Jason, I’m terribly sorry to wake you but there is a critic here from the paper.” Robert sat up, rubbed his eyes and looked around.
“Where is he?” he asked.
A middle aged man suddenly appeared from behind the owner’s shoulder.
“Jason, this is Triponious Fiddler. Triponious, Jason,” said the owner, turning on his heel and walking quickly away. Jason and Triponious shook hands and then sat down.
“The figures in Streamline No 6 remind me of the emotive projections of Klee,” said Triponious.
“Very nice of you to say so,” said Robert.
“I find the horizontal explorations fascinating. Could it be that they mark a new departure in your work?”
“What do you think?”
“What I mean is that up until now your work has always pivoted on the vertical distributing mass according to its stern, almost classical demands. If you are now morphing to a emotionally projective horizontality and twisting this into a kind of grasping for space in the middle ground, then this would be a radical departure similar to the spirally metrical hypertensions Gingle experimented with in his later career.”
Robert paused for a moment and then said, “You know I think you may just be right.”
“I find the apex distributions in number 10 spiritually illuminating.”
“Very kind of you.”
“Were you trying to give a signature to the dimensionalities in the foreground or did you see them as a deliberately non directional approach as in the Winter Garden series of your middle work.”
“What do you think?” said Robert.
“Well, if it is a non directional approach it creates a new role for the mass nexus in the left middle ground and throws into brilliant relief the motivating texture references which I think is a totally fascinating and completely radical solution to the troublesome problem of coordinating spectral tintinnabulations.”
Robert paused and then said, “You know I do believe you have hit it directly on the head.”
They went on for some time in this fashion, the critic pausing now and again to write furiously in a notebook balanced on the arm of his chair. When they were done Triponious and Robert rose from their chairs and shook hands. The critic was ecstatic. “Jason, you have a reputation for being difficult and deliberately obtuse but I have found you delightful, most helpful and wonderfully communicative. Thank you.”
“Very kind of you,” said Robert.
When the critic left two elderly ladies came forward. They each sat down in one of the armchairs.
“Do these paintings mean anything?” asked the older.
“O no,” said Robert.
“Are they simply ravings, then?” asked the other.
“What do you think?” asked Robert.
“Most likely. They seem to be the overflow of a diseased mind.”
“You are probably right,” said Robert.
“A type of farcical satire played upon the forces of order and discipline,” said the older.
“No doubt,” said Robert.
The ladies rose. They looked at him in the way nineteenth century missionaries might have looked at a tribesman who had just described his orgiastic sexual practices. Before going the older leaned towards him and asked in a voice filled with mild anguish, “Are you not even the least bit ashamed?”
“O yes,” said Robert, smiling foolishly. “Terribly, terribly ashamed.”
When the old ladies left four young persons stepped up, two male, two female. “You are Jason Bouganville?” asked one of the women.
“Today, yes.” replied Robert. The young people, very serious lovers of art, took this as a mystical utterance and nodded their heads in unison which reminded Robert of the German clock hanging above Jason’s work table. It was covered with tiny doors which opened at certain hours to reveal mechanical figures chopping wood, sawing boards and walking on the spot in a rolling, exaggerated gait while carrying a pail of water from the well. When the young people had finished nodding, a procedure which went on for some time past what Robert thought to be called for, or even normal, one of the men said,
“Mr. Bouganville, we find your work most stimulating.”
Robert, who associated the word stimulating exclusively with the naked images of women which he sometimes watched on the porno channel in the evening, guffawed loudly, then began a series of chokings and coughings which he brought to a close by withdrawing from his pocket a gigantic red mechanic’s rag into which he blew his nose in an unrestrained, trumpet like manner. This brought on more noddings from the young persons who seemed to be indicating that they were well versed in the habits of artists and knew well of the vigorous and sometimes socially unacceptable behavior which often accompanies those who immerse themselves in seminal creative activity.
“Do you show in your studio, Mr. Bouganville?”
Robert didn’t know what to say to this so he asked, “Do you think one of you guys could get me a coffee?”
“Certainly,” they all said in unison and went off, all four of them, coming back a few minutes later. The woman who was carrying the coffee put it on the table in front of him. “Very kind of you,” said Robert, who in their absence had decided that there was no way that hermit Jason would want these people in his ‘studio’ which meant his very messy cabin with paint splotches all over the walls and even on the windows. So he gave them Evelyn’s phone number. Evelyn, essentially a very kindly person, was, on Jason’s behalf, a tigress who would tell the President that Jason wasn’t available presently but that if he left his number he might call him back. Might. He stood to shake the hands of the departing young persons whose hands were very dry and who applied what he thought must be the correct minimum of polite pressure.
When Robert got back to the cabin, Jason was painting his front steps. Robert climbed out of the truck and walked up to where he was working. “Well, how did it go?” asked Jason.
“Good, I think. I even got in three hours sleep.” Jason thought this a nice touch. Aging artist, worn out by the vigours of art, taking an autumnal nap.
Evelyn came out the next Saturday for supper. When Jason came up to meet her as she was climbing out of the car, she said, “You naughty, naughty man.”
“Now, Evelyn. I’m an old man and claim the right to fill in the forms in the easiest way possible. And from what I hear Robert did a very good job.”
“Excellent,” said Evelyn. “Far better than you would have done. You would have insulted the critic, giving him one of your tedious lectures on the evils of jargon and gotten a very bad review. Whatever Robert said to him he gave you a glowing review, an entire Saturday Art’s page.”
“Well, there you go!” said Jason.
The sales from the show were far better than Jason expected. He gave Robert five hundred dollars to buy tires for the truck. When he tried to refuse it, Jason said, “I sold four times what I thought I would sell and that is due to you. This is just your cut. You are my brother and know well that I am a miserable old man and not into performing charitable acts.”
Robert took the five one hundred dollar bills and put them in his wallet. He was surrounded by a coterie of seven or eight grandchildren whose avid eyes had picked up the numbers off the bills before he could put them away. They began agitating for a special treat. After some negotiation with the children, Robert and Jason decided to split the cost of taking them into the little town nearby for Kentucky Fried Chicken and a movie. The movie, fortunately, was an mildly violent space opera, which even the six year old could watch having to place her hands over her eyes only three times during the whole performance.
Diedre disliked the manager as much as anyone but to stuff three potatoes into the exhaust pipe of his Volvo seemed a little much. Childish she thought but didn’t speak the word out loud. To survive in an office you must be politic and the universal opinion was that he richly deserved it. He did. But still it seemed to Diedre that such pranks said more about their perpetrator than their victim, or at least as much.
No one knew who did it. Whoever it was, was a great dissimulator, for Diedre, a very astute and perceptive young woman, could not come up with even an intelligent guess. She knew she didn’t do it but otherwise she could not rule out a single one of the twenty six people working in the office. Or the three temporary workers filling in for people on vacation and the one temp doing a mat leave. Anyone could have done it including the manager who was quite capable of pulling off such a stunt for perverse reasons of his own. Possibly it could have something to do with his wife, a thin, worried woman. She and the manager were constantly at war. Everyone on staff were occasionally subjected to the manager’s lectures on his wife’s supposedly twisted character. Considering the source, most privately considered his wife to be, in all likelihood, a sane and balanced woman. He could have stuffed the potatoes himself in order to provoke pity. This would be ridiculous for if he invoked anything by such an act it would be derision not pity. But the manager was not one to see himself as others saw him. His could not be trusted to think clearly in such matters.
The potatoes did terrible things to the Volvo. The repairs amounted to several thousands and when they were done he traded it in for another. As it was a company car this did not cost him a penny. In fact he benefited for he exchanged a three year old for a brand new Volvo. The big boss, far off in an eastern city, didn’t seem to care. The operation made lots of money. A few extra thousand in expenses could easily be buried in a mountain of several millions.
The manager played the aggrieved victim to the hilt. He went from worker to worker explaining his hurt and perplexity. Why would someone do such a thing to him? After all was he not a good boss? Did he not treat everyone with respect? Did he not give them a present (from company funds) on their birthdays? Did he not send them flowers (again, from company funds) when they were in the hospital? Did he not provide them with a lavish Christmas party complete with presents, Santa Claus, and strippers, male for the females, female for the males? Did he not make himself available to listen to their personal problems? Did he not remember the names of their husbands, wives, and children so that his relationship with his employees did not lack the personal touch? And now this. Now betrayal.
This was very painful to the employees for no matter how lugubrious his performance they could not laugh, excepting of course when they got home and described his antics to their partners or friends. While they were listening to the manager they had to put on a commiserating face and drive all levity from their minds. As one could imagine the effort was staggering. And, even worst, when he was finished they had to assure him that this was an isolated act, obviously performed by a psychotic, and was no reflection at all on the quality of his leadership. They had no option but to reassure him, messaging his injured ego with the heavy oils of lies and flattery. Thus their days were poisoned with self disgust and everyone spent at least a half hour in the evening examining the classifieds for positions with other companies.
At first the manager claimed he did not want to know who did it. He was above that kind of pettiness, floating upon a sea of injured dignity and benevolent self restraint. This did not last for long. He soon developed a theory that it was one of the temporaries who stuffed the potatoes. Day laborers with no true connection to the company, they were the ones most likely to be subject to envy, jealousy and other dark human emotions leading to such an act. The temp company was sloppy in its hiring practices. A sociopath had been allowed to slip through, a viper, a mad dog.
He began to conduct secret researches. He consulted those he considered to be his closest allies, including Diedre. He demanded copies of the personnel files of the temps from their company. This was illegal but he did not care. Neither did the temp company. They were concerned about losing a lucrative contract so they sent the files over by courier the same day they were requested. Everything in them was average, normal, unremarkable. But then what would you expect? A sociopath doesn’t know he is a sociopath. This is one of the essential conditions of being a sociopath. But even if they did know they would hardly insist it be entered in their personnel file, would they? For then they would have no job and no need for a personnel file. He read the files through three times and then made Diedre go through them as well. There was nothing.
Then the manager, in one of his sessions with Diedre, suddenly began banging himself on the forehead and calling himself, dumb, stupid, idiotic, half witted and so on.
“Concentrating on the temps has blinded me,” he declared. “After all, dear Diedre, most murders are committed by persons close to the victim. After all, why would a passion of murder spring up between strangers?”
The manager’s revelation meant they had to go through the personnel files of all the full timers. This took some time for the manager insisted they read everything, even yellowing twenty-five year old evaluations, on the theory (unconsciously absorbed from TV cop shows) that significant facts could emerge from seemingly irrelevant details. But all this reading led nowhere. The manager demonstrated this to Deidre by opening his empty hands and leaving them that way for several dramatic seconds. Diedre grew suddenly afraid. If she were working for a mad man did this not mean that she was mad herself?
“The personnel files,” said the manager, “are useless. Who would have thought that, in the matter of real information about character, personnel files are pure garbage, detritus, junk, irrelevant. In fact I am coming to the reluctant conclusion that personnel files are useless altogether even when it comes to matters of personnel.” He knit his brows and gave Diedre a piercing look. “And that, Diedre, is a scary thought.”
The manager decided they would have to take a different path. The files were useless. Feedback from his personal spies came up with nothing, ‘nada’ as he put it. Therefore they would have to go to extraordinary lengths. A genuine secret investigation would have to be conducted. No more politeness. No more Mr Nice Guy. Hardball. That was what was called for. Did Diedre not agree? Diedre agreed.
The manager first thought of hiring an investigating company. There were people who did that sort of thing for an hourly fee, usually ex police officers. These companies claimed they were the soul of discretion but the manager wondered. There were two of these men in his club with whom he occasionally played golf and they were certainly not discreet. Police officers, living lives of occasionally intense activity alternating with long periods of lethargy and boredom, were horrible gossips. How could he entrust company secrets to people like that? Obviously he couldn’t. In no time at all that the company was investigating its employees would be all over the city. Coffee shops would be abuzz. People would speak of nothing else. Impossible. It would be as suicidal as Coca Cola publishing its secret formula in the New York Times.
The investigation would have to be done secretly, by a trusted Lieutenant who had the best interests of both the company and the manager at heart. Nothing else would produce results without the danger of public scandal. Did Diedre agree? Diedre agreed. Good. Then they would start next week.
The manager put out that Diedre would be attending meetings out of town on Mondays and Tuesdays. These meetings were top secret and had to do with a project no one was to ask her about. If they did ask her the manager would be displeased, most displeased, ragingly displeased. Wednesday through Friday she would be in the office performing her regular duties. Any mention of this project would mean thumbscrews for the mentioner and thumbscrews for those who listened to the mentioner. Did they understand? Yes, they understood. They worked for a mad man who frequently demanded they not do obscure things which they had never had the slightest intention of doing. On this point, like Dick Nixon, they were perfectly clear. Not that they cared much what he was up to. Long ago they decided he was a lunatic. What they themselves were up to were salaries, vacations, RRSPs, and the juicy possibility of a wrongful dismissal suit. If they wished to indulge themselves in conspiracy theories they could go up on the net.
Diedre was instructed to disguise herself as a plainclothes police officer. The manager was vague on detail. Should she wear a black skirt with white blouse and black tie, black hose and a pair of sensible shoes? The manager did not know. How could she expect him to know what plainclothes police officers wore? He didn’t hang around in such circles. She would have to find out for herself. Take some initiative for God’s sakes. Did he always have to dot the i’s and cross the t’s? Did she expect him to suddenly transform himself into a female police officer and demonstrate? No she didn’t. Fine then. Investigate the costume and then afterwards investigate the employees bringing back the name of the potato stuffer. He wanted that name. He needed that name.
The weekend before she was to begin her investigations Diedre thought a great deal about what she was going to do. She did not do this by sitting on the sofa and drinking coffee. Rather she kept busy. Saturday and Sunday afternoons she played softball. Saturday morning she cleaned the apartment. Sunday morning she jogged in the park. Sunday evening she had supper with an old boyfriend, coming home alone early to watch a movie. While she was busy doing all this the sub mind was sifting through all the possibilities, examining, selecting and choosing alternatives. By the time she awoke on Monday morning, her path was clear.
Firstly she would not be conducting any real investigations. It was not her job, she did not want to and even if it were her job and she wanted to, she was not qualified. Police officers are trained. They know something about technique, proper procedure. She did not.
Secondly, even if she were qualified, wanted to and it was her job, she would not do it for she found the thought of sneaking about interviewing neighbors, friends, bartenders, caretakers and so on to be morally repulsive.
Thirdly even if she was qualified, wanted to, it was her job and she did not find it morally repulsive she could not bring herself to do something which would implicate one of her fellow employees whether they were guilty or not. She had no desire to catch the potato stuffer. In fact she rather admired him or her. Besides the task was impossible. How could one find the guilty party from the hopeless jumble of disassociated gossip coming out of such an investigation? The very idea was insane, delusional. So why do it? To kiss the boss’s ass and keep her job was the only answer to that. But was it worth it? That would depend on how much she wanted to keep her job. She did want to keep it but not at the price of conducting such an investigation. But she might be willing to pay the price for pretending to conduct an investigation. Actually, pretending to conduct an investigation might be fun.
On Monday morning Diedre slept late. When she got up she dressed in weekend clothes – jeans and an old jacket – and walked to the diner around the corner from her apartment for breakfast. She had pancakes and ham. After eating she took a notebook and pen from her briefcase. Seated in a booth at the very back of the restaurant she began making notes. The investigation, according to the manager, was supposed to produce a name but there was little likelihood that it would do so. After all, his own investigation produced nothing. It was just possible that no one from the office stuffed potatoes into the manager’s tailpipe. It may have been a passing juvenile delinquent or even an avenger striking at the manager on the basis of a long ago incident which the manager had forgotten. Or it could be the manager’s wife, who, as far as Diedre could see spent seventy percent of her time hating and refusing to speak to the manager and the other thirty percent wheedling money for clothes and plastic surgery. But one thing was for sure - an investigation did not necessarily have to come up with a name and if it didn’t come up with a name a pretend investigation was just as good as a real one. A pretend no name and a real no name were exactly the same.
Diedre listed all the employees in alphabetical order. When she was finished this she pulled out a pile of file folders and filled in the tabs. On blank sheets of loose paper she began to make up imaginary conversations with ‘informants’ about Joan Arras, the first name on the list. She invented a loosed tongued caretaker who looked after the small block across the lane from Joan and who claimed her to be the sweetest soul on earth, an angel erroneously mixed up with the human beings. A garbage pick up man claimed he had never seen a liquor bottle in Joan’s garbage and that the back of her house was always in impeccable order. A local dry cleaner remembered the time when Joan returned eight blocks to his store to give back one dollar too much mistakenly given her in change. She filled six pages with this bogus reporting carefully noted down in small precise handwriting taught her by the Sisters of Charity of her elementary school days. She remained in the booth until the lunch crowd started coming in. When she started back to the apartment she had filled out reports for two names and started in on the third.
That afternoon Diedre went to a movie and in the evening she played a playoff softball game. When she got up on Tuesday morning she finished the ‘reports’ on the third name and by mid afternoon completed two more. She figured that was enough. She sat down at her computer and typed the lot. She printed two copies putting one in her own file cabinet and the others in five separate folders for the manager. These she put in her briefcase and brought with her to work on Wednesday morning.
The manager was waiting. As soon as she came in the door he beckoned her to come into his office. She opened her briefcase and handed him the files. He sat down in his high backed chair and began to read. Diedre took the opportunity to begin a series of notes on the sixth name on the list. This was George Dorian, the office wag. George was known, by joyful self identification, as a great user of pornography. She invented an interview with the owner of a porno shop near his apartment building. The owner told her that George never bought perverse pornography, only ‘normal’ pornography by which he meant naked pictures of buxom babes and nubile young females, or those purporting to be such, sunning themselves in the healthy sunshine. No leather or rubber or boots and whips for George. The owner claimed that young men like George who purchased pornography were far less likely to fondle women on public transportation than young men who did not. He quoted four studies from the Kinsey Institute to prove it. She was done this interview and starting another with an imaginary policeman, a friend of George’s since elementary school, who vouched for his integrity, claiming that the use of pornography had no detrimental effects on character development and that it was well known that users were less inclined to commit violent acts than were non users. She was well into the policeman’s ‘report’ when the manager threw the files down on the desk. He gave her an intense look and smiled the cheesy smile he had learned at effective management courses.
“Diedre, this is brilliant work.”
“Thank you,” said Diedre.
“Continue on girl. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate it.”
So Diedre continued on for three weeks, the Wednesday morning reaction from the manager being much the same but with a slightly diminishing enthusiasm caused by the fact that the names were passing by without one of them being chosen. On the fourth Wednesday he sat reading her latest while she began notes on the last three. The first of these was Alister Villon, the office boy. Because his last name was the same as the 12th century French poet she decided to give a bohemian theme to his list of informants. One was a bartender in a seedy hotel. Another a late night hot dog vendor outside a country and western club. She thought of making the third a stripper but decided that would be going too far. The actual Alister was a shy, pimply faced lad who lived at home with his mother and three sisters and who, other than in his dreams, had no such associations. It was hard to work up a lively story from Alister’s lackluster life. The boy lacked initiative. When the manager dropped the files onto his desk Diedre looked up into his face which he had drawn up into his effective management mask of sorrowful puzzlement. She was surprised, since there were only three names left, that it had taken so long to get to this.
“Diedre this work is excellent but unfortunately it has not produced a name.”
“This is true, boss,” Diedre replied.
“Why I wonder?”
“Not mine to wonder why, Boss. Mine but to do or die.”
“Very funny Diedre. That’s the Beatles, is it not?”
“Actually it’s Kipling.”
“American, was he?”
“Ah….., yes.” Diedre offered up a prayer that Rudyard would not rise up from his grave to haunt her for changing his nationality.
“But the question remains doesn’t it Diedre? Why has the investigation produced no name, no culprit, no perp as the TV cops say?”
“I am just the investigator, Boss. I do my job step by step and if something happens it happens. If it doesn’t it doesn’t.”
“A rather fatalistic point of view. Not much get up and go in a view like that, is there? I thought you were the take charge type.”
“I can’t force a name, Boss. I have to stick with the facts or all is lost.”
“True,” said the manager. “The facts are important. If it weren’t for the facts we would be lost in a raging sea of opinion and rhetoric, would we not?”
After a few beats the manager asked, “Where were we?”
“Right. Well, there are three left.”
“Is Villon one of them?”
“I don’t want to influence you but still I should tell you that my suspicions fall heavily upon him. He never looks you in the eye. Did you ever notice that, Diedre? People who never look you in the eye, well you start to wonder what they are trying to hide.”
Diedre mentally revised Alister’s list of informants to a minister, a school principal and a lawyer. “I’ll be working on him all day Monday, Boss.”
“Good. Be impartial by all means Diedre but let’s not forget the killer instinct, right? Sometimes it’s necessary to take off the gloves and drive a bony fist right into the face of your opponent. Is this not true, Diedre?”
“Right on, Boss. Don’t worry. I won’t forget.”
Sunday evening Diedre was sitting on her sofa reading an exceedingly boring novel when the phone rang. It was Elliot Mercer, a salesman not long away from retirement with thirty years of company service. He wanted to talk to her. “About what?” Diedre asked. He would rather not say over the phone. This sounded a little cloak and daggerish to Diedre but she gave him the address of the building and her apartment number. Elliot lived nearby. The intercom gave its electronic bong fifteen minutes later.
When he arrived at the door she ushered him into the living room. On the table was a tray of tea things and a plate of cookies. Elliot poured himself a cup of tea and ate three cookies. Then he started in.
“When my wife and I were young and even middle aged we were unwise. We were financially reckless. We didn’t save. We maxed out one credit card after another until for five years now one half of our cash income goes out in payments. And still we have significant debt. Reduced, yes, but still enough so that five years of my total cash income would not pay it off. I start with this not to bore you with my personal problems but to give you the background for the proposal I am about to make.”
Diedre smiled politely.
“The doctors have given me a terminal diagnosis. In two years I will be dead. This is not dramatic speculation but surety. My wife does not work outside the home. She never has. After the kids were gone she put her extra time into volunteer work at the church. Mine is our only income. There is no insurance payment through work in case of death and we have no personal insurance. I will be gone before the pension kicks in and even if I wasn’t there are no survivor payments to the spouse. We own our house but if it were sold it would only pay the debt, hopefully. My wife is younger than I and will not be eligible to receive old age pension and social security for ten years. When I die she will be left destitute. She will have to sell the house, pay off the debts and will have no income. I am not complaining, mind you. We got ourselves into this. We spent the money and accumulated the debt and we have only ourselves to blame. Yet I want to do my best to leave her in a position where, even if she has to sell the house, she will have an income to tide her over until she is sixty-five. It would be devastating for me not to be able to do that and this is why I am here. I warn you that the proposal I am about to make is dishonest. Technically I suppose, it is not fraudulent but it is quite clearly dishonest. But I am caught in a corner and would rather be dishonest than to leave my wife destitute.”
Elliot paused to eat two more cookies and sip his tea. Then he continued. “I will not tell you how, because that would mean mentioning names, but I know you are investigating the tailpipe affair as everyone in the office calls it. Ridiculous self dramatization on the part of that poor man who calls himself our manager. In truth he does little managing. The sales staff sells the product, which is easy because it is a good product and in demand. The accountant counts the money and administrates the financial apparatus and the clerks keep this all recorded on the computers and in the filing cabinets. The manager runs a kind of Shakespearian fool sideshow rather than manages. Anyway, I know you are almost finished and have not come up with a name and will not, no doubt, for I don’t think anyone in the office did it. I propose to offer myself as a scapegoat, so to speak, ‘take the rap’ as the manager would put it in his American TV slang. I think if you implicate me on some flimsy evidence we concoct together he will become enraged and fire me. Then I can sue for wrongful dismissal. I have a son in law who is a lawyer. I have thirty years with the company. If I win it will mean a tidy sum and my wife will be looked after when I am gone. You will have conducted a successful investigation and the Boss will be very happy with you. What do you think?”
“I have to ask some questions,” said Diedre. “I know you prefer not to tell me but I have to know what it is that you are dying from.”
“Bowel. Inoperable but chemo and radiation should keep me alive for two years or so according to the doctors.”
“Do you have copies of the Doctor’s reports?”
“A thick file full. At home.”
“I will have to see it.”
“I hate to ask but if I am to consider this I have to be sure of my ground.”
“I’m not insulted. I understand. When I get home I’ll copy the reports and send them over by courier.”
Elliot got to his feet. “You’ll consider it then?”
“How long will it take?”
“If you send me that file over tonight then I’ll phone you tomorrow evening after supper.”
Diedre phoned the next night and told Elliot she would do it. He came over and they spent three hours working out a plan to implicate him. The ‘evidence’ was, as Elliot had said before, a flimsy concoction which would not stand up in court. Otherwise the company could claim the firing was for just cause. But they both felt it would be enough to convince the manager.
The manager was ecstatic when Diedre told him on Wednesday morning. “I knew my faith in you would prove right in the end, Diedre.”
He called in Elliot and fired him on the spot. Unwisely, without consulting the company lawyer, he sent him a letter of termination that very afternoon. Elliot sued. His son in law took the case pro bono. After two years in the courts there was an out of court settlement. Curiously it had no effect upon the career of the manager at all. He continued to manage until they kicked him upstairs to a VP position when he was fifty. Diedre became the new manager. But all this happened some years later.
Diedre went to visit Elliot in the hospital when he was dying. He was thin and weak but he had little pain. “Basically I am starving to death,” he said. “As if you wanted to know.”
“I do want to know,” said Diedre. “I am insatiably curious even about dying.”
“Well there you go. You know now.”
When she was leaving Eliot said, “I’ll be gone soon so we should say goodbye. Do you want to go to the funeral?”
“Then I’ll tell Ellen and she will let you know.”
Diedre went to the funeral with the manager who had on his best banker’s suit and his most lugubriously insincere mourning mask. After the church service they drove in the procession to the cemetery. It was a cold winter day. The wind whipping across the open fields around the graves cut like a knife. The minister sped through the graveyard service. The mourners were wrapped up like mummies. The flowers were put round the grave for the brief service by the undertaker’s assistants and then whisked away as soon as it was over, some already visibly frozen. Diedre and the manager stood at the very back and were the first to leave and return to the car. Diedre had left it running and once inside they took off their gloves, rubbed their hands together and opened their coats to let in the hot air blowing from the vents. When they were driving back to the office the manager said.
“It’s sad, isn’t it Diedre, when the pioneers begin to go. Makes you start thinking of the day when those who come after us will be standing around at our funerals. Time passes by and so on.”
Deidre did not reply. This did not bother the manager for he assumed her silence was a result of deep pondering. He smiled and looked out the window at the passing fields, covered with drifted mounds of snow.
“One day, Diedre, it will be you and I, and young ones, yet to come, will stand beside our graves and think thoughts full of the mournful quality of passing time. Tempus fugit. Gather ye rosebuds while ye may.” The manager turned to look at Diedre who nodded politely to recognize the fact that he was speaking to her but kept her eyes on the road.
The manager turned away and looked back at the fields being replaced now by clusters of snow slavered fur trees. They reminded him of childhood Christmases and the upcoming office Christmas party. He remembered that Elliot had always been a bit of a wet blanket at the parties, sipping a weak drink, chatting with a few cronies in the corner. Since he was an older man he didn’t say anything to him but if he had been ten years younger he would have kicked his ass. Elliot wasn’t a team man. He didn’t let his hair down. But then again he was innocuous. Excepting that final incident he didn’t cause trouble and his sales figures were good right up to the end. He wasn’t a bad sort, really. One could almost feel a real sense of loss when a man like Elliot passed on. The manager’s eyes moistened and he wiped them quickly with the first knuckle of his right hand.
Then the manager remembered the payout and how the boss in the east had made him come out and get the cheque in person to rub it in. He remembered how the big boss’s secretary had booked him into a cheap hotel in the city’s industrial area and how he had been kept waiting in the outer office for a full hour. How was he to know that Elliot had a shark lawyer for a son in law? They made him deliver the cheque to the son in law in person, by God, and get a receipt. And then, after all that humiliation, the big boss buried everything and nothing more was said.
When Diedre told him she was going to the funeral he decided to come along. “Elliot and I had a disagreement, yes,” he told her, “but he was a member of the team for a long time. That demands a little respect.” Saying this made him feel magnanimous. He wasn’t the type to hold a grudge.
Once again he looked over at Diedre who was giving all her attention to her driving, yet seemed abstracted, far away. Diedre was a hard one to read. She could be quite secretive, even cunning. He wondered why she would bother going to the funeral. What kind of relationship would a good looking young woman like her have with an old fossil like Elliot? He thought about that for a few minutes and came up with a blank. He sighed. Then he was suddenly jabbed in the ribs by the memory of his humiliation. Sitting in the outer office, the secretaries looking at him from the corner of their eyes. Vindictive little bitches as loyal to the loves and hates of their boss as if they were to their own.
He sat up straight and cleared his throat. “Good ole Elliot, eh Diedre?” he said. “He was a vindictive bastard but you have to admit he knew when to sue and when to settle. A money grubber and a back stabber but in the end you have to be fair and give him that.”