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Something Happened

Something Happened

Something Happened 41


  "Thicker than with me?"

  "He needs me more."

  "I don't need you at all."

  "You'd have to replace me, wouldn't you?"

  "No. As far as the company is concerned, no one needs anyone. It goes on by itself. It doesn't need us. We need it."

  "Should I talk to Kagle?"

  "Kagle's a damned fool. It doesn't help him to downgrade us. You'll get your raise, if I get mine."

  "I'll talk to him."

  "I'm not begging you to."

  "I'll cut the leg out from under him."

  "That isn't funny," Green retorts.

  "I know."

  My smirk feels alien and bizarre, as though someone else had smirked for me and stuck it on.

  "You're supposed to be his friend."

  "It just came out," I apologize in confusion. "I didn't even know I was saying it. I'll go talk to him."

  "I haven't asked you to. I don't know why I even care. None of us are going anywhere far. Kagle limps. I'm Jewish. Nobody's sure what you are."

  "I'm nothing. My wife's a devoted Congregationalist."

  "Devotion isn't good enough. She'd have to be a celebrity or very rich. You've got a crippled child of some kind you don't talk about much, haven't you?"

  "Brain damaged."

  "Serious?"

  "Hopeless."

  "Don't be too sure. I've heard--"

  "So have I."

  "I know a doctor--"

  "I've seen him."

  "Why--"

  "Cut it out, Jack. I mean it."

  "I've been wondering if you had limits," Green replies. "I just found out." He looks sorry, reflective. Green has problems with his children, but none like Derek, which gives me an effective advantage over him I might want to use again. (The kid comes in handy after all, doesn't he?) "You'll get your raise," Green tells me finally, "and I'll probably get mine. I might even let you make your speech this year."

  "I don't believe it."

  "You shouldn't."

  "I won't believe it until I do it."

  "It's part of my strategy. You wouldn't be able to handle this job if they decide to give me Kagle's. I could do better. Better than him. I might be able to make vice-president that way."

  "Kagle's not."

  "Kagle limps and has hair in his nose and ears. Nobody with a limp or a retarded child is ever going to be president."

  "Roosevelt limped."

  "I mean of the company. The company is more particular than the country. They cut my budget. That's what I'm sore about. And I don't trust you. I'll get it back. But I'll have to fight for it. I'll have to grovel. That's the way I have to fight, and that's the part I hate. That's the reason I wouldn't recommend you to replace me. You're not qualified. You can't grovel."

  "I grovel."

  "You grovel, but not gracefully. It's like your fawning."

  "I could learn how."

  "I know how. See Green, Green says. See Green grovel, Green jokes. That's the reason they cut my budget. They like the way I grovel. They cut it every year. Just to see me grovel."

  I will cut it even more, for I know how much of the expensive and truly urgent work we produce is not needed or used. I must remember to seem humble and unexcited and trustworthy. Green is right. Nothing any of us does affects matters much. (We can only affect each other.) It's a honeycomb; we drone. Directors die; they're replaced. I'll retire Ed Phelps. I must look innocent and act reserved. If I feel like kicking my heels, I must kick them in my study at home or in Red Parker's apartment in the city. I must stop using Red Parker's apartment. It shows. What will I do with Red Parker? He's younger than Ed Phelps. I must be nice to everybody. (I must act dumb.) "What the hell are you so God-damned peppy about these days?" Johnny Brown demands, with one of his light, big-fisted pokes in the arm.

  (It isn't difficult to imagine that fist in my face.)

  "You," I jolly him back. "You're giving me call reports."

  "Have you checked them against the sales figures?"

  "These are what count."

  "They're full of shit."

  "As long as they sound good."

  "Don't count on it," Johnny Brown answers. "There are better ways the salesmen could spend their time than making up lies like this. I'd know how to handle them. I'd make sure the bastards were out on sales calls all day long. I'd take the chairs out of their offices. They hate writing up these."

  "Arthur Baron wants them for Horace White and Lester Black."

  "Ask him why."

  "The computer breaks down and cries if it doesn't get good news."

  "You're a card."

  I grovel gracefully with Johnny Brown and get the call reports I want for Arthur Baron. I'll get a raise. (My wife and children will have more money.) What will happen to me if Arthur Baron has a stroke soon? (He is overweight and smokes cigarettes, and I don't know a damn thing about his blood pressure, blood lipids, or cholesterol count. I don't even know what blood lipids are, or what they're supposed to do.) Who would look after me if Arthur Baron died? (Who would get his job?) Horace White? I'd hate to have to rely on that stingerless wasp for protection while sleek, Semitic Green with envy was burrowing away at me from below with his quicker mind and brilliant vocabulary and Johnny Brown was bunching his fist to punch me in the jaw. I hope he doesn't. A punch in the jaw would just about ruin me: it would damage not only my face but my reputation for efficiency and authority. It would be much worse for me than kicking Kagle in the leg. I could, conceivably, kick Kagle in the leg and pretend it was a joke or do it when just the two of us were together in his office and not many people would have to know. But everyone in the company would know if Johnny Brown punched me in the jaw. (I wish I were the one who was strong and courageous and he was puny and craven. He makes me feel two feet shorter than I am, and sexually impotent.) How would top management feel about someone in middle management who'd been punched in the jaw and felt sexually impotent? Not good, I think. My wife would lose respect for me. I wouldn't want my children, my neighbors, or even Derek's nurse to find out. No one with a limp, a retarded child, or a punch in the jaw will ever be president of the company or of the world. If someone had punched Richard Nixon in the jaw, he would never have made it to President. Nobody wants a man who's been punched in the jaw. It's hard to put much faith in the intelligence of someone who's been punched in the jaw. It would do me no good if Brown were fired afterward; it wouldn't un-punch my jaw. What will I do if he does? (How will I handle it?) I know what I will do. I'll fall down. But suppose, to my wonderment, I didn't fall down? I'd have to try to punch him back. Which would be worse? I know which would be worse.

  Both.

  I have sudden failures of confidence that leave me without energy, will, or hope. It happens when I'm alone or driving back from somewhere with my wife and she is at the wheel. (I just want to stop, give up.) It often follows elation. Everything drains away, leaving me with the apathetic outlook that I have arrived at my true level and it is low. There are times now when I have trouble maintaining my erections. They don't always get and stay as hard as they used to. I worry. And sometimes they do--it all charges back vigorously--and makes me feel like the heavyweight champion of the world. That's a good sensation. There are times when I'd not be afraid to fuck anybody, when there is not even the thinnest curtain of doubt to weave myself through in order to start doing the job. I don't even think of it as a job. It's a pleasure. I will not hesitate to make Ed Phelps retire.

  "Oh, boy," says my wife, impressed. "Where is it all coming from? You're like a young boy again."

  "What do you know about young boys?" I banter, smarting a little in jealous recoil from the comparison.

  "I know more than you think I do. Come on."

  "I think you do."

  "You're even younger now than you were when you were younger," she says with a reveling laugh.

  "So are you."

  "Any complaints?"

  "Of course not."

  "Com
e on. Why do you always like to wait?"

  "Again?" Penny asks, with an exclamation of flattered delight. (She is so honored and appreciative when I want her.) "How come you have so much time for me lately? Wait," she laughs, in the throaty voice of a sensuous contralto. "Wait, baby. You don't give a young girl a chance."

  Penny is thirty-two now and I have been going with her for nearly ten years. She is no longer in love with me. I was never that way about her.

  Penny and my wife are just about the only two left with whom I feel completely at ease (and also the two I find least intriguing). With every other girl I can call (I have a coded list of twenty-three names and numbers in my billfold, my office, and in a bedside drawer in Red Parker's apartment, and I might get a Yes from any one of them on any given evening or afternoon) each time is like the first time all over again (a strain. It's a job. I'll have to do well. I liked it better when they thought they were doing us a favor. I'm sorry they ever found out they could have orgasms too. I wonder who told them).

  I know I can make a good impression on Arthur Baron by forcing Ed Phelps to retire. And unlike Kagle, I've had no close relationship with the kindly, prattling old man who's been with the company more than forty years and whose duties are now reduced to obtaining plane and hotel reservations through the Travel Department for anyone who wants to use him, and following up on shipping, transportation, and room arrangements for the convention. He has to make certain enough cars have been rented and enough whiskey ordered. His salary is good, although his raises the past ten years or so (ever since he grew obsolete and became superfluous and expendable) have been nominal.

  "It will be in Puerto Rico again, I'm sure," he repeats incessantly, and whispers, "Lester Black's wife's family owns a piece of the hotel there. As soon as they hurry up and make it official, I can begin. I wish they would."

  I have ducked around file cabinets to avoid hearing him say that to me again. He could retire with a fortune in pension and profit-sharing benefits: he doesn't want to go. I'll make him. But what about Red Parker, who's just about my own age and isn't old enough to retire? How will I get rid of him? He has indeed been going downhill fast since his wife was killed in that automobile crash--the girls he goes with now are not nearly as pretty as the ones he went with when she was alive--but he might not crack up in time to do me any good. The announcement will have to be made soon.

  "How are you, Bob?" Arthur Baron asks every time now when we pass in the hallway.

  "Fine, Art. You?"

  "That's good."

  Otherwise, the changes will dominate attention at the convention. I must remember to be modest, bland, and congenial to one and all for the time being. I sometimes feel I have Arthur Baron over a barrel. This is known as a delusion of grandeur. (He could change his mind and keep Kagle for years and nothing consequential would result. Or someone else could fire Arthur Baron and me together without an instant's notice and there would not be a ripple in the total operation of the company. It would not falter.) And I don't entertain this thought seriously. But who will replace Arthur Baron when he does fall ill, dies, retires, is promoted, or runs out of ability and is eased away to the side? It won't be me. (Maybe it will.) I don't think they think I ever could replace Arthur Baron, just as Arthur Baron could never become Horace White when Horace White falls ill (it will be of a much different kind of disease from the ones that will put Arthur Baron, Green, Kagle, and me away--I sense that already--it will be something lingering and tediously progressive. Horace White is not the outgoing, wholesome type to fall ill and die rapidly. He will come creaking into the office on aluminum-alloy canes and wheelchairs for years after he is disabled, smiling, chortling dryly, looking ghastly, and alluding to old times familiarly, oppressing us all despotically right to the end, for he will still own stock), dies, or retires. (Horace White already has been eased aside.) Horace White can go no further in the company because there is nothing more he can do than be Horace White. He can be named to prestigious government commissions that issue reports on matters of grave national importance that are methodically ignored. (Arthur Baron and I can't do that.) His name looks good in the newspapers and on certain letterheads, for he is not merely Horace White but Horace White III, and his wife--she is his third; one died of cancer of the lymph and the second was crippled in a sporting accident--and his mother--she is now in the very high eighties (like the company's common stock again, ha, ha, after the most recent two-for-one split)--come out looking good enough in photographs of people who raise dogs or sponsor charity balls and prominent benefit performances of musical comedies, operas, and ballets. Arthur Baron can move up past Horace White (and so, in theory, might I), for the company does, in its own biologically deterministic and implying way, elevate ability over ownership, but he can never become Horace White (and neither, in practice, can I). Only another Horace White, a brother, cousin, son, nephew, or husband of an undistinguished sister, could move right into the corporate structure and meet all the requirements of being another Horace White. (Every company needs one.) He is such a small-minded, oblivious prick, a self-satisfied simpleton (I wonder why I do have such haunting dreams about him in which his thin features turn despotic and carnal and he seems so viciously out of character); he buys puzzles, perpetual-motion gimmicks, and other novelties in Brentano's book store and has his secretary send for me and other employees of the company to show them off (as though we could not afford to buy them ourselves if we wanted them. He wore a red blazer of nappy wool at the convention one night last year and took us all by surprise. It looked good. This year there will be other red blazers).

  "Look at this," he will command, beaming, as though he had just chanced upon something of vast benefit to all mankind. "Isn't it something? Just stand still there and look at it. It will never stop as long as you keep doing this. Each one is always different."

  "That's really something," I have to respond, and have to remain standing still until he grows tired of having me in his office and sends me back.

  I hate to have to stand still.

  I have had to stand still for the longest time now, it seems, for nearly all of my life. Nearly every time I search back I come upon myself standing still inside some memory, sculpted there, or lying flattened as though by strokes from the brush of an illustrator or in transparent blue or purple chemical stains on the glass slide of a microscope or on the single frame of a strip of colored motion picture film. Even when the film moves, I am able to view the action only in arrested moments on single frames. And yet I must have moved from where I was to where I've come, even while standing still. Was I brought here? I have this full country acre in Connecticut. I think I was. Who did it? Only in the army do I think I had more freedom of choice, more room in which to move about. At least I felt I did. I did. I was outside my family, had no wife, job, parent, children, met no one I cared for. I had no ties. I had no one anywhere I cared for. I got laid a lot. Overseas I went with prostitutes and enjoyed that too. I had fun. I enjoyed being away (at least it was something to do. If you sat home alone Saturday night, at least you were sitting home in a barracks, which was better than sitting alone in your own home on a Saturday night. One New Year's Eve in the army I had nothing to do and didn't care. We take weekend drives now to people I don't want to be with and can't wait to leave. A long weekend will break up my family one day. I stroke my dick. I stroked it often then too. I was often lonely and wished I had someone I could care for. I would have liked a pen pal, a pin-up girl in a cashmere sweater and chaste pleated skirt, a sweetheart I adored who photographed beautifully and mailed me snapshots. I still would. I felt cheated, underprivileged. I wanted to be the nice boy in the Hollywood movie the nice girl was crazy about, that fellow in the love songs the girls were all singing to on the radio. I wasn't); and I know already that I'll be standing still again after I've been moved one giant step forward into Andy Kagle's position and have nailed down the job. I'll make my speech. I'll have important new work to do (nailing down the
job), but I'll do it standing still. (And after I've done it and know I'm not in danger of being kicked out for a while, my interest will abate and my work will grow monotonous again. I will not want what I have and will be in fear of losing it. I will not ever be convinced my illegal thoughts and dreams are not apparent to the authorities in the company, and I will still slither numbly into dismay at sight of a closed office door of a higher executive from behind which something small as a mouse might emerge that will bear my secrets out into the open and leave me worse off than dead. For everyone to see.) Everything dead lies still unless winds ruffle the feathers, fur, or hair. (I have the feeling now that I have already been everywhere it has been possible for me to go.) The sight of a dead dog on a highway is enough to turn my stomach and wrench my heart with pity. It reminds me of a dead child. And I never even had a dog. Children and dead dogs evoke sympathy. Neither can speak. No one else. Two dead dogs on a highway seconds apart lead me to think my sanity is finally going and that it is no longer possible for me to separate what I see from what I remember or what I don't want to see. In flickers of disorientation I often glimpse in silhouette from the rear or side people I did not know well and have not seen or thought about in decades (total strangers take on the identity for a second of kids I remember from elementary or high school or people I was acquainted with briefly in other jobs or brushed against uneventfully in the army. I was once beaten up by an enlisted man who didn't know I was an officer). They are always people I was not close to and do not want to see again. (I don't catch unreal glimpses of people I do want to see.) Real and imagined events overrun each other in my mind in hazy indistinction. I sometimes find it hard to be certain whether I have done something I intended to or only thought of doing it but didn't. I have answered letters twice. I have no system. Others I don't answer at all because I remember wanting to promptly and think I have. There's much I think of doing and saying I know I'd better not. I'd lose my job or go to jail. I am growing forgetful. My eyesight is deteriorating: I wear reading glasses now and require a stronger prescription every year. Periodontal work will save my teeth only for a while. I know I repeat myself at home with my children and my wife (my children point that out with unkindness): soon I'll be repeating myself with everyone everywhere and be shunned as a prattling old fool. In southern Louisiana, I learned recently (on a business trip to New Orleans, where, because I found myself alone in a strange, big city, I picked up a chunky, Negro whore in a bar and asked her to follow me to my hotel room. I figured if she could make her way through the hotel lobby into my room, I could make my way into her. I get so lonesome in glamorous cities in which I have nobody I can call. Everybody else, I feel, is having a good time. I get the blues when it rains. The blues I can't lose when it rains. I've never learned how to make friends in strange cities. Men who strike up conversations with me appear homosexual and drive me off.