A man has three magic numbers in his life: His date of birth, which he cannot foresee or choose, the date he passes, which (should be) likewise an unknown, and most importantly the date at which his age added to his years of service allows him to retire. This he can know positively.
So with the observation of days and months and years and the encyclical precession of office spaces in glass towers Phillips reaches his “magic number” and the day has been appointed on which he will retire. Forty years of service, forty years he’s held the pen. Officially there will be a wine and cheese on the Friday at 4:30 p.m. in the main boardroom.
“To hell with that!” said César (César, the assistant underwriter to Phillips, César the recent grad, two years in the business, a year into his second company, for all eternity in a cubicle) “My boy Phillips does not want to be paraded around in front of that punk Crooks. He hardly knows him! We’re taking him to McGillicutty’s – and we’re going Thursday.”
Crooks, the Regional VP, will preside over the official retirement swell. He’ll make a scripted speech and tell Phillips how everyone likes him, admires him, and will miss him – although as is only proper they will miss him without begrudging him his retirement, of course.
Crooks transferred out from Head Office. He’s been here in the Regional Office three months. He has a six handicap.
McGillicutty’s (“Mickey G’s” to its patrons) is the lounge three blocks of a walk away. The lager is cold, the pizza fair, and Cesar’s motive ulterior: The waitresses are attractive and assume that because he wears a suit he can be generous. They pay attention to him. All on the underwriting floor are in favor of Mickey G’s. Phillips, after a dutiful moment of reflection, nodded his consent.
César, the Dave they called “the Dutchman”, Bernard (“Bernard”, never “Bernie”, no three-hundred-pound man in a suit is ever “Bernie”), and three other guys, Rick, Richard (to tell him apart from Rick) and Samuel from Zimbabwe. Samuel referred to himself always as “Sam” and only in the third person. “Just give it to Sam, my friends, and it will be done!” he’d say – but to call him “Sam” did not honor the man’s appearance, which was one of dignity and sorrow. “Samuel” he remained to his friends, forever. The metonymy of nicknames would never apply to Samuel.
They meet in front of the elevator on the 14th floor.5:15 p.m. on the Thursday. They walked in silence down to Mickey G’s, a posse in suit and tie, a mafia born of rows of cloth cubicle partitions, single-serving coffee packets, and headsets. Valerie, Val the beautiful, the hostess/beverage manager at Mickey G’s takes their armload of woolen coats and checks them, then takes them to the table César has reserved. As a general rule you cannot make reservations at Mickey G’s, but this is a special occasion. César had arranged it, and Val – so beautiful – had gone along with it because she had known them all and Phillips too, although he does not come as often as the others do.
Val stood taller than all of them and handsome in a black dress, if it’s right to call a woman “handsome’. She is at least six feet tall. Her hair is blond and is just beginning to have a silvery highlight or two in it. “Ash blond” Phillips would say, if he had been asked. He has a gentleman’s manners. Her eyes are green, so green and in the right light it is all you can see of her, a light out of darkness, St. Elmo’s fire, a dancing spirit above a druid’s black cloth. Those eyes make her seem ageless, like something made, not born. She had worked there for seven years, not counting a mysterious yearlong absence in the recent past. “She probably had a baby.” said Bernard. “We need to look at her navel. Women who have never given birth have a vertical-looking navel. Well, not so much vertical as upright, like a keyhole. Once they give birth, the navel flattens and drops – like an eyelid.” Bernard looked like a man who thought about such things.
“No. No baby” said Rick, firmly with his palm upon the table for emphasis “But I’d hazard a guess that a man was involved.” His speech slowed as he made the last pronouncement, canvassing for support. He looked around for a consensus favorable to his speculation but Samuel intervened.
“No baby, no man. A girl as beautiful as that could only begin to care for a sick mother or father”.
“Samuel, you take the fun out of everything” said Cesare, only now moved to speak. “Besides, none of us have ever seen, nor will ever see, her navel. Phillips: What’s your call?”
Phillips had sat in silence the whole time. He sat still, until all were still and then tilted his head to one side and without looking at anyone advised “No baby, no man, and no sickness. She went back to school. It did not agree with her, and she came back here.” Philips had mastered one form of non-verbal communication, and that was to hesitate for long enough before answering any inquiry that people would believe that he was recalling the correct answer. Rather than searching the ether for inspiration he appeared to be retrieving – from memory – a fact written on tablets of clay and stored in a great library until such a time as it was needed to present some irrefutable proof. None doubted his answer.
The others were quiet a moment. Phillips continued, “One day while picking up paint at an art store – you know I like to paint in my spare time – I ran into Valerie. She was in the store. I congratulated her on her interest in art and she laughed and told me that she was there to pose for the figure drawing class held in the studios above the store. She liked to have the extra money because she was back to school and could not rely on the tip money she had made here”.
There was a moment of silence. Apparently no one knew he painted.
“F-f-f-figure drawing?” The stuttered query came from Rick (or Richard.)
“Yes, yes, it was quite clear. Figure drawing. So we made our good-byes and I departed with my paints. Did you know Valerie has a sister too? Taller yet. Blonder. Can’t imagine what they fed them when they were young. That’s who got her into the figure modeling.”
Phillips was small man and spare, not an inch over 5’8”. His hair had become completely white over time, what was left of it, and he always wore an enormous moustache, which was even more silver than his hair. His complexion was good, ruddy even, a man in good health. His eyes were blue and clear. This clarity was an illusion, an inference of the observer however, for as Phillips he would admit his vision was poor and he couldn’t read a damn thing without glasses. Computers are normally a torment to an aging cubicle worker but are a blessing to Phillips. He had no fear of the technology and by increasing the font size he could again be master of written clauses, declarations, and schedules. That’s why Crook liked him Rick (or Richard?) has said, because he doesn’t have to walk over to see what the old boy is up too, he can just look out of his corner office and across the row of cubes and see the screen.
Prior to his pending retirement Phillips’ claim to fame was that of dress. Monday through Thursday he never stood out one way or the other. When the new dress code had circulated as Crook came out to whip the Regional Underwriting Office into shape the cubicles had seethed with talk of revolt, especially amongst the women. It was a footwear issue over there, in Auto. The men looked it over and it was noted that suspenders would have to be worn with suits – no belts, except for Fridays. Phillips had considered it a moment and then with his usual impartial-sounding commentary had noted that he had worn “braces” every day at work for all of his adult life, except for Fridays. Fridays he wore a belt as was permitted, and a series of plaid sport-coats. That was his signature.
The dress code went into place without any further idle talk. Every Friday Phillips wore woolen trousers with a sharp crease and inch-wide hems, a white shirt and black tie, and a plaid sport-coat. The plaid sport-coats, and having survived every merger and acquisition since 1979, were what identified Phillips as an individual within the rows of cubicles. “The plaid aura of survival” Herrick called it, Herrick who had been packaged off in ’98 and was now out of insurance and in the construction equipment rental business. Herrick had been the last Auto guy Phillips new. He had forgotten Herrick’s first name in ‘01 and would never again recall it.
Phillips spoke again, unprompted: “I started with the company when I was 17, in Liverpool. In the mail room. Of course, in those days the working in the mailroom actually meant something more like what we call a “gofer” now. You know; gofer this, gofer that. My first manager was an old Navy man named Rogers. He never moved from his desk. There was a bell in the mailroom attached to a line that ran here and there through eyelets screwed into the walls and beams. At least once a day Rogers would ring the bell to summon me up a floor to his desk. All of the desks were out in the open then, none of these smart little cloth-walled cubicles like we have now. I would walk the rows of desks and no one would look up. When I got to Philip’s desk he would growl at me “Nails boy! Go get me some nails!” By this he meant cigarettes – “coffin nails” you see – and I would forthwith run downstairs, out the main entrance, and down to a little shop to purchase him one of those little packages of cigarettes. I had to make the purchase with my own money, of which I had precious little. When I would return to Rogers with the cigarettes he would light the first one slowly, drag deeply upon it, and only then would he reimburse me with exact change, except on the last working day of each month, when he’d throw in a tip”.
Samuel had to ask, “What became of Rogers the Navy Man?”
César interrupted quickly “Still at his desk. Smoking. Now more importantly what about Val’s sister?”
Phillips was still with Rogers. One thing at a time. “Well, I don’t know. At one time I presumed he died of lung cancer because a man like Rogers could only die of lung cancer. As I said, he was Navy man and I’d heard that he’d survived being torpedoed by U-boats in World War II. A man like that doesn’t surrender in an instant; he can only be overcome over time. Only cancer can do that. But you know; I always imagined that he’d get his pension at sixty-five, retire to the countryside, and quit smoking until he either died or reached seventy-five, at which point he’d decide he’d beaten the actuaries and would begin to smoke again”.
Valerie brought the beer. Mickey G’s management understood that the secret of finding margin in the liquor trade was to have it served cold by as good-looking girls as would work for next to nothing in the hopes of good tips so Val brought them their pints in glasses rimed with frost from being in the deep-freeze.
“Here’s to Rogers!” toasted Bernard, “God willing he beat the actuaries!”
The toast was seconded and joined and joined again. The round was soon done and a second brought. The talk had turned to mergers and acquisitions, and packages and brokers. The boys were on a train now, swallowing steadily from the icy pints. Val was attentive, listening to César who ordered for all, but she spoke only to Phillips. Phillips ignored his pint, lost in his own thoughts.
“Phillips!” Bernard interrupted his reverie with a shout that only a big man can muster. “Phillips! Did you ever deal with the broker we had out in the Southeast, that red-faced little German Wolters?”
Phillips, still looking away nodded sagely. “Yes, yes, for sure for sure. The shoe-on-the-table man.”
Rick (and Dick) “Did he really do that? Pound a shoe on a table?”
“Oh yes he did” began Bernard “and hard, like he was trying to beat a spider to death or something! But hey, it’s Phillip’s night, and it’s his story.”
Phillips, shaking his head, began again “Bernard’s description is really quite accurate. He was German you see, and this is how he argued. He never hit anyone with the shoe, but he beat out each syllable of each word in each sentence with the heel of his shoe. Whap-whap-whap-whap! Whap! And he grew very red-faced. I thought he might pass out from an apoplectic fit. I might have even dared to hope it. Then, as suddenly as he had started it, he sat down, slipped the shoe back on his foot, tightened his tie and said “Well, I can see I am getting nowhere with you two so lets go to lunch”. We went to lunch, spent an hour and a half, drank three pints each and he paid for all of it. Herrick and I exchanged knowing looks – this would look good on our expense accounts and the worst being over, we could say the visit went well. Right after lunch, we went back to his office where we had left our briefcases. He walked towards his chair with his back facing us. We did not intend to sit down, but before we could reach our cases and make our good-byes he turned around, his face even redder than before, the tie loose, the shoe in hand! The same claim! The same whap-whap-whap-whap! Whap! One more hour. Had it been in our power we would have conceded him every point. But it was not in our power and eventually he tired. Red-faced and sweating he slipped the shoe back on, tightened up his tie, and showed us to the door. The receptionist showed no sign that she had heard or seen anything unusual. But after all, if you knew Wolters you knew that it wasn’t at all unusual. Still, he was in his own way a gentleman. He had occasion to visit our offices many times, and never once brought out the shoe to rain misery down upon our furniture.
César alone did not seem to enjoy the anecdote. “No reason you had to put up with that Phillips, no reason at all. We don’t need a guy like that’s business”
“Of course we don’t” Phillips responded, again his voice one of commentary without dissent, the same voice he had used with the red-faced German and with many other less-infamous troublesome individuals, “But we were different then, and we did business with him for a long time.”
Phillips looked around the table. The boys were relaxed now, all ties were loose, or, in Bernard’s case, taken off and stuffed in a jacket pocket. A third round had been brought. Phillips second pint still sat untouched in front of him. His tie was still done up as neat as it had been in the morning. He looked around, his blues eyes quick and inquiring. He didn’t know a one of them. Not like he’d known Rogers or the German with the shoe. The precessional clock had clicked one more incremental degree and now a vast chasm of time stood between the two groups.
“One more day Phillips,” said Samuel, all dignity and kindness. “One more day. Will we see the plaid jacket?”
Phillips smiled and did not answer at first, passing on a response by appearing to give it his trademark consideration. “Well, I don’t know about tomorrow, but I know if I do not visit the men’s room in the next five minutes I will embarrass myself to the point where I will not be able to show up tomorrow” With that he excused himself.
Mickey G’s is long and narrow, a bar fronting a street on a busy commercial intersection. There are two exits, one at the “front” of the building, the main entrance/exit, and the fire escape back by the men’s bathroom. Phillips made his way to the back, put his glasses on, then stepped up to the urinal and the task at hand mastered began to read the advertisements, the flyers or inserts under Plexiglas. One in particular appealed to him, it was for a vocational school. “I will not need that particular service” he thought to himself, and the thought made him smile. Done with the ritual he cleaned and dried his hands, then took his glasses off. He stepped back out and looked down the bar. He could see the boys at their table. Dick had a shoe in hand and was pounding the table wildly. “That is 3-pint arm action if ever there was” he thought to himself.
Valerie, Val, shining in her black dress and her silvery-blond hair was at the end of the bar closest to him. He stood for a moment, steady on his feet and watched her work. Further down the bar, at the table he could see that there were now 3 pints in front of where he had sat. All the other glasses on the table were empty. He smiled and moved over to the counter where Val, so tall, was working. He stood quietly and waited for her to speak.
“It’s the man of the moment” she said. “So how does it feel?”
“Feels just fine.” He responded quickly, not needing to give professional consideration. “Look, I’m going to go now, throw this down on the boy’s tab”. He drew a twenty from his billfold, crisp and clean with a crease in it from the billfold like the crease in his Friday trousers.
“You’re money is no good here young fellow, the boys have already taken care of it.” Val said, her eyes so bright they gave off a light of their own. He marveled at that.
“Well, thank them on my behalf” he said, again quick and genuine.
“Look she said, I’ll call you a cab. We’ll slip out the back, you and I, and I’ll wait on the step and have a smoke while you wait.” She called the cab, looking at him the whole time, her eyes shining. She hung up and moved over to him, joined him by the crook of his arm, and escorted him out the back door. He looked back at the table. All of them except Samuel had their shoes out and were beating the table furiously. Samuel was laughing, and his laughter, clear and melodious, like a child’s, could be heard over the staccato of the shoes. The Dutchman had finally shown, he had settled into Phillip’s seat and had lifted one of the pints with his right hand even as he held a shoe in his left. The shoe was one of Richard’s or Rick’s, not the Dutchman’s, for he could see both of the stockinged feet of one of them through the chairs. He marveled at the clarity of vision he suddenly possessed, that he could see these socks, these disembodied dancer’s feet tapping away on the hard laminate of the bar floor. He looked back up at Val. She was nearly a head taller than he. The silver in her hair looked like a halo. He patted her hand and she laughed. They walked out the back door.
Out the back Val freed his elbow from her care and Phillips took off his jacket and tucked it under one arm. It had rained; rain on pavement smells better than exhaust but less than clean. He could feel the humidity lifting and the cooler air of the night coming on. Valerie – she was Valerie now, “Val” seems so informal as to be disrespectful – leaned back against the door, her arms folded across her chest, looking at Phillips. She smiled her half smile and looked directly at him. She had a wide and sensuous mouth and looked like she laughed honestly if not often. He noticed her hands, the rings on her fingers. On her right hand, rings of silver, white gold, and again white gold upon her thumb. On her left wrist she wore a bracelet of copper. They shone these precious things; they shone in the light of her eyes. He looked back into her, all at once boyish, and not knowing what to say. He had forgotten his meme; his moment of consideration that gave him the authority of spirit he had possessed over the forty years he’d held the pen.
“So tomorrow’s the last day for you is it John?” Valerie spoke, quiet and serious now.
“Well, not exactly” he stammered, speaking too quickly. Valerie arched a brow and he felt the same as if she held him up by the chin and she turned his shoulders square to her with the power of her gaze like an angel’s grasp.
“Tell Me.” She commanded now, without inflection, her voice squeezing him.
He stood a moment and swayed, then stiffened and held his thoughts a moment, for an extra second of consideration. He tilted his head and looked above and beside her, as if reading from a schedule printed over her shoulder. “Today’s the last day Val. I will be calling in sick tomorrow. You see, the plaid jacket is at the tailor’s, the wine and cheese is Crooks’ thing – I never liked the man – and I plan to take my paints out to the cottage and get a bit of a head start on this retirement thing.”
Val stepped down the stairs. “John Phillips, you are a warrior.”
There is no compliment like a compliment from a beautiful woman – the most beautiful woman – on one’s last day. Force Majeure he thought, that act which supersedes all others. She took him by the arm again and they stood together in the rain and the artificial light. The cab pulled up to the curb, a white cab with silver lettering. Valerie opened the door for him and he stepped in.
“Do you want me to say anything to your friends John” Valerie asked, her eyes less bright, less hard, as soft as water now reflecting the light that came off of the rain on the street and the streetlight that shone upon it.
“Yes” said Phillips, “Yes I do. Tell them that I draw beautifully.”
The cab door was shut and it pulled away with fiery taillights disappearing into the street and the rain and Valerie watched over him until he was gone.
Steve Passey is originally from Southern Alberta. He is the author of the short-story collection “Forty-Five Minutes of Unstoppable Rock” (Tortoise Books, October 2017) and chapbook “The Coachella Madrigals” (Luminous Press, August 2017).
If you enjoyed Viking Funeral, leave a comment and let Steve know.
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