an unforeseen shower

Death is a constant rain shower and you walk in it everyday.  Most of us are lucky.  The poisonous drops miss us by inches as we’re crossing the street, when we’re shopping or picking up a newspaper, or when we’re taking a leisurely drive or at work.  But they’re falling all around you and onto others, believe me…sometimes soft and quiet, forecast far in advance.  Other times they’re ferocious and unexpected…a quick storm from a cloudless sky.

“Larry.”

I rolled over and looked at the wall, the yellow wall.  I hate yellow.

“Larry, wake up.  You slept through your alarm.”

Jeannie was in the bathroom, getting ready.  I know I slept through my alarm.  I wasn’t even asleep for Christ’s sake.  I just ignored it.

She stomped back into the room.

“Larry!  You’ve got to get up!”  She sat on the bed, put her hand on my hip and started rocking me back and forth.  “Come on baby…”

I rolled over, probably a little too flagrantly.

“I am awake.  Jesus Christ who could sleep through all that yapping?”

She closed her eyes and let her eyelids rest on that one for a beat before opening them again.

“What’s wrong?  Are you sick?”

I took a deep breath, covering my eyes with my hands.  I should have known

Jeannie wouldn’t take the bait.  She’s never looking for a fight.  I was just trying to create something big enough to eclipse the day I had in front of me.

“No.  But I wish I were.  Do you have any viruses you can inject me with?”

“Did you stay up all night?”

“Yeah,” I said to the palms of my hands. “In the den until 5:30, in here ever

since.  I don’t know why I even bothered to stop working.  It’s not like I slept at all and now I feel worse.”

Jeannie pulled my right hand off my face and rubbed it comfortingly, giving me a sad frown and then she went back to her curling iron in the bathroom

“I don’t know what to tell you.  You know what I think,” she called.

I didn’t answer, didn’t need to.  What, am I going to re-ignite the ongoing argument, the ONLY ongoing argument we have, the one that always leaves us ready to toss each other down a windy flight of stairs?  No thanks.  I had bigger things to worry about that day.

“No one outside of that tyrannical agency would ever be asked to pitch a marketing campaign that they didn’t create to sell a product that they’re not familiar with to a client that they’ve never met.  It’s ridiculous. It’s not fair to you, not fair to the client, that’s for sure.  For all the money they spend Larry, they deserve…”

“Jeannie,” I interrupted, holding my hand up.

“Well it’s illogical Larry.  And then that ass Corlan will hammer you incessantly when it’s over, even if you do a better job than anyone on this planet could have done.  He’ll probably comment on the bags under your eyes before the meeting even starts.  Nothing about you up working, ignoring your family, just so he can make even more money, but “Why do you look like shit Anderson?!  We’ve got a major deal here this morning!”  And you’ll come home to Lizzie and me all pissy and go to bed.  I’m telling you…”

My temples started pulsating.  She was right.

“JEANNIE SHUT THE HELL UP!”

Eerily right.

My ride into the city seemed hazy.  If I thought about Chow Chow Dog Food one more time I’d have taken that fucking train hostage.  People seemed to sense my volatility.  No one asked me about the sport’s page or tried to sell me a hot watch.  Good.  Keep them away.  No use going to the Chow Chow meeting with blood on my hands.  I closed my eyes, leaned my head back against the seat and enjoyed the liberty of my brief transit to captivity.

In another forty-five minutes I’d be under the wrath of Donavon Corlan, senior partner of Corlan, Romero and Vanderbilt.  Corlan is a bear.  I take that back.  In a world of bears, Corlan is a Kodiak.  He’s one of those guys that are so completely out of touch with everything that all the man understands is the means and the end.  The bottom line.  If by chance you see him in the hall, say hello but don’t expect anything more than a grunt for a response and don’t think he has any idea who you are.  Nope.  The only way to make a name for yourself in that agency is to make a truckload of money for the company or really fuck up, with the latter being the easiest of the two.  And when you do fuck up, watch your back.  Donovan Corlan has a reputation for sacrificing people in the most indiscreet ways.

Last year Ronald Mullins took his wife and two girls to see their grandmother in San Marino for Easter weekend.  Apparently there were some problems with an engine on the plane during the return flight home.  An unexpected layover in Phoenix caused Mullins to not make it back until Tuesday.  Ron had to re-schedule a meeting with a potential client he’d been courting…Chilly PoP Creamcicles.  They ended up going with another ad agency, not because the meeting was rescheduled, just because that’s their choice to make.  Hell, it’s not even like Chilly PoP was already a client of ours.  But when Corlan saw the first Chilly PoP ad on Channel Seven, a special lunch meeting was called for all twenty-two of us at Chez Louis.  Just before the food arrived, Corlan pinged a water glass to request everyone’s attention at the head of the table.  He stood before the group and dedicated the feast to Ronald Mullins.  “Thank you Ronald for your seven years of dedication and hard work,” he toasted.  “I’m not really sure why you’ve made the choice to end what could have been a rocketing career, but here’s to you and good luck in your next job.” As Corlan raised his glass, eyes hit the floor.  It wasn’t the first time he’d publicly devastated someone, toasting in celebration with his left hand while shooting bullets of vanishing pensions and looming foreclosures through the unsuspecting victim’s head with his right.  See, in Corlan’s world, life and all of its unforeseen obstacles are fluid and related to everything you do…including your job.  Ronald didn’t stay for the meal, but the rest of us did.  Anyone who would have left might as well ride home with Mullins.  They’d be finished too.

To the rest of us of us around the table, staring at the ground while our associate’s future was ripped to shreds, the gamble was worth it.  Do your job, play every move safely and keep your nose clean and reap the benefits of Corlan, Romero and Vanderbilt. The private schools, the BMW’s, the all brick house on the south side of town with the split-level bedroom.  I’d worked directly under Corlan for four years and a partnership with Corlan, Romero and Vanderbilt meant a secured future for Larry, Jeannie and Elizabeth.  I take whatever Corlan dishes out and for the last forty-eight hours, he’d been giving me heaping portions.  Jeannie and I fight regularly about the whole situation.  She swears the psychological wear and tear is too great for me and definitely too much for our family.  Strangely, those fights never happen at the mall.

The train made its Westword Avenue stop.  I glanced at my watch…fifteen minutes to go.  A deep breath…Fucking Wentworth.  If anyone was to blame for my rocky home situation this week, forty-eight straight hours of unexpected work and my unusually foul mood this morning, it was Albert Wentworth.  Chow Chow was his account until Monday when he didn’t bother to come to work.  Apparently Albert hadn’t followed through on some things he was supposed to.  Corlan called me in and said Wentworth had “dropped the ball again” and it was up to me to save the future of Corlan, Romero and Vanderbilt.  What a joke.  We’re the third largest ad agency in the city and three tea cup poodles, dancing around in matching jumpsuits, singing some ridiculous song about why Chow Chow Dog Food is the most nutritious canned food for puppies is going to bring down the empire.  Yeah right.  Worse than that, Corlan thinks I believe that nonsense.  None of that mattered though.  Wentworth was the next candidate for public execution and meanwhile, if I didn’t play clean-up for him, I could count on being his follow-up act.

I got to the office about five minutes early.  If I timed the elevator ride just right, there would be time to stop in the 15th floor kitchen for an awful cup of coffee.   Not a chance.  The parking garage is below the lobby so all of the commuters who drive their own cars get to board the elevator before it even reaches the lobby.  My reward on that day for taking the train and sparing the environment the unnecessary pollutants from my vehicle was waiting for four loads of people before I was finally able to cram in to an already crowded box and make the seventeen floor trip.  No awful coffee for me.  And wouldn’t you know, of all the elevators I missed, not one of them was carrying Floyd Patterson.

Floyd is one of “those” guys.  Every office has one.  The single guy that works very little, skates out of the office two hours early because he has courtside tickets, has a three martini lunch because “the client insisted on picking his brain” for two hours.  He saves all his complements for himself but reserves all criticisms for you.  But the thing that really makes Floyd one of “those” guys is that things always work out for him.  No matter how lazy he is, how much he screws up or what shenanigans he pulls, he never gets caught.  Floyd always seems to come out of everything with a high-pro glow and two golden roses between his teeth.  God I hate him.  Floyd is next in line behind me on the unwritten list of who’s going to make partner.  It would sure be a lot easier for him if I screwed up and Corlan threw me to the wolves and so, Floyd watches me like a hawk.

As I was packing myself into the thick as soup walk-in closet of an elevator, someone goosed me hard enough to cause me to lurch forward and practically pin an older women in earmuffs against the elevator wall.

“I’m sorry!” I yelped.  “Excuse me!”  Everyone on the elevator rustled around to accommodate my clumsiness.  I turned around, but I didn’t need to.  Floyd had a grin on his face two blocks wide.

“How’s it going Anderson?!  Get some rest last night?”

“How’s it going Floyd,” I mumbled, turning around and trying to look intrigued by the lighted numbers changing above the door.  God I hate that guy.

“Chow Chow Dog Food is the one!  Come on little puppies come getcha some!  Chow Chow Dog Food ain’t for kids but if your puppy doesn’t get some he’ll wish he did!”  Floyd finished his rendition of the Chow Chow song somewhere near the 10th floor and the whole elevator broke out in applause.

“You see Anderson?  It’s not that hard!  No need to stay up night and day over a couple little puppies!” he sang, giving me a whack on the back.

The elevator chime sounded.

“Whoa!  Fifteen!  That’s me!” Floyd said.  “Excuse me folks…that wonderful coffee from the 15th floor kitchen calls.”

The occupants happily parted the way for the entertainment.  Floyd stepped out and faced the group.

“Thank you folks!  See you at noon, we’ll all do Mam’zelle Nitouche for lunch!”

He bowed to the cheers as the elevator doors closed.  Just before they met he pointed at me with a wink.  “Anderson!  Get some rest!  You look like hell!”

The 17th floor was buzzing.  Grace Alderech is Corlan’s secretary.  That woman has been with him for twenty-two years and if you see her scurrying in rapid-fire mode, you better believe something serious is going on.  I hadn’t even made it to my office yet when she blew past me with a stack of files in her hands.

“Larry Mr. Corlan is waiting for you in his office.  The Chow Chow people are in conference room one.”

“What?  That meeting isn’t until ten!”

Grace stopped and shot me a whiplash look, the one that said Larry! There’s nothing I can do about it and we both know it!  Do us all a favor and just do the job!

“Guess there’s no time for a jelly-filled,” I pushed out with a sheepish grin.  She didn’t even respond.

I figured I’d better head straight back to the big man’s office before I even set down my coat.  Corlan can get punchy if he thinks you’re not making him a priority.

He had his back to me when I got there, or the back of his chair rather.  But the door was open so I went in anyway.  He was on the phone.

“No you listen to me you incompetent little flea.  And listen good because there won’t be any more discussion after this already unnecessary phone call!  I want the upstairs deck in cherrywood, you hear me?  Cherrywood! And the back porch in pine.  Polished pine…sanded down until it’s as smooth as my baby grandson’s ass.  You sand it down too.  Take some of that free time away you’ve got to call and pester me with after we’ve already been over this some 3 hundred odd times.  Put my wife on the phone!”

I shifted my weight back and forth and gave my briefcase a little twirl.

“Oh.  Well tell her to call me.  Not you.  Don’t you ever call me again.”

Corlan slammed down the phone and spun around.

“Anderson!” he piped out, studying the gourmet bags under my eyes.  “What the hell happened to you?!  You look like shit!  You’re not doing drugs are you?”

“No sir,” I responded.  “I uh…I’ve been having a slumber party with the Chow Chow account for the last three days.”

“Oh.  Yes, Chow Chow.  Well where the hell have you been?  Those people have been here for some four, five, six odd hours waiting on you.”

“Well the meeting was scheduled for…”

“Scheduling doesn’t work Anderson.  Too much human error.  Now get yourself cleaned up, shaped up and get in that meeting.  Lord knows Wentworth has already cosmo-fucked it enough.”

I had no idea what that meant but it was hardly the time for a lesson in corporate-slang.

“Yes sir.”

Walking back to my office I was replaying Grace’s message that Corlan was “waiting” for me and trying to figure out just what, exactly, he wanted.  I had to pass the conference room where the Chow Chow litter was waiting so I stuck my head in the door.

Sylvia Katzenbaum is the only person I’d dealt with considering the account had only been mine for a couple days.  She was on the other end of the room, writing, at the head of the table with two men I didn’t know.

“Hey Sylvia.  I’ll be right here,” I called from the door.  She looked up and gave me a wave.  Sylvia had a smile that could hypnotize a pack of frenzied hyena’s.  She really is beautiful.

“Oh hi Larry!  Listen, we’re real early, I know.  It was just much easier to beat the traffic and get here at nine.  I’m sure you’ve been up day and night.  Take as much time as you need.  We’re not expecting you for another forty-five minutes or so.”  Now that’s the right way to approach me after the previous forty-eight hours I’d had.

“Great, well just give me a couple of minutes to get myself together and I’ll be right in.  I’m ready to go anyway.”

There was that flashy smile and she turned to one of the men at the table.

“This guy…he gets the account two days ago and he’s ready to run with it.  Larry you are definitely the man!”

“Well thanks.  See you in a flash.”  I played it cool and buried the smile but I took the strokes.  They were well deserved and are far and few between in this company.   Besides, I wasn’t about to cork her before she oozed to Corlan about how great I was.

The walk to my office was short but I took it with a bit of leisurely arrogance.  It sure was nice to hear someone act humanly, recognize that you’d been busting tail for their product and appreciate all you do for them.  Corlan should take some lessons. This was going to be a slam-dunk.  Heck, I was going to go down to the 15th floor to get some awful coffee for all four of us!  I have no idea how Wentworth fucked everything up so badly working with that kitten of a woman.  Oh well…I smiled to myself.  If you can’t play with the big dogs Albert…Stay on the porch.

I tossed my coat on the chair inside my office and put my briefcase on the desk just in time for Grace to buzz me.

“Larry, the Chow Chow people are…” blah blah blah.  I was feeling a bit smug so I gave Grace a little twist.

“I’m going down to the 15th floor to get some coffee Grace,” I interrupted.  “Terrible coffee!  You want any?”  There was a pounding silence on the other end of that phone.

“Larry…” she began with a hint of warning in her voice.

“See you in a minute.”  I cut her off and couldn’t help smiling when I did.  I was on the Chow Chow deal like a pigeon on a worm sandwich and Grace was about one hour from shuffling my partnership papers so, the way I saw it, a little confidence was in order.

The men’s restroom is right next to the elevator.  I pushed inside for a quick pit stop before going downstairs for coffee.  Well, well, well.  Who else but Floyd Patterson was applying the final touches to his museum exhibit of a hairdo when I walked in.         “Anderson!  What the hell are you doing here?  I figured you’d be knee deep in a ten pound bag of kibbel by now.  You follow me in here for some pointers?”

I unzipped my slacks and stood with my back to him as I relieved myself.  Not even Floyd was going to distract the momentum I had building up for this deal.  I feigned a quick glance at my watch.

“9:20.  Gee Floyd what are you doing here so early today?  I guess I’d better watch for an earthquake or meteor or some other freak occurrence.  You sure you’re feeling alright?”

He froze in mid-hair-sculpting pose.  I’d never bit back at him and I think he was somewhat taken aback.  The brief silence told me I’d stilted him and that was enough to make me throw a secret grin to the sky-blue tile on the wall in front of me.

“Well let me give you a little advice for your Chow Chow meeting anyway,” he replied.

Oh boy was he miffed!  His voice got a little louder.  I knew he had stopped sculpting and was facing my back.

“Albert Wentworth has already fucked up that deal so bad that no matter what you do, no matter what catchy little mutt grub sing-a-long you’ve put together, you’re going to close that deal Larry.  It’s a fucking joke that you’ve put so much energy into this petty project, really.”

I got him!  I finally got Floyd Patterson and there was no way I was letting go that easily.

“Really Floyd?  How did Albert fuck-up the deal?”  I zipped up my fly and walked to the sink next to him and began washing my hands.  Floyd’s cheeks were two round red apples and his eyes were shooting blades at me, trying to pin me to the wall.

“It doesn’t matter if I know what Wentworth did or not,” he spat to the side of my face.  “The point is he’s a loser and that’s why he’s on his way out and you’re taking over his account. You ought to thank Wentworth for dropping the ball and cutting you a break.”

“Well that hurts…especially coming from you Floyd…” I said as I re-tucked my shirt and scanned my teeth.  “You know, you should go easy on Albert because you don’t know the whole story.  Oh, and I’ve seen your work and, uh, I didn’t see anyone beating down your door to close this deal.”  His fists were clenching.  I glanced back at my teeth in the mirror.  “Maybe they did Floyd, I’m sorry.  Maybe they did and you were downstairs having a sing-a-long on the 15th floor.”

“You’re going to close that deal because the client wants to go with Corlan, Romero and Vanderbilt, not because you’ve put together anything ground breaking Anderson!  Don’t you forget that!”

He stormed out of the bathroom and I danced a quick jig.  I’d apologize later.  No…on second thought, no I wouldn’t.

“God I hate that guy.”  I spun around.  The words came from one of the stalls.  The lock on the third stall unhitched with a click and the door swung open, revealing… Albert Wentworth.

I’m not quite sure what my first thought was, but I know that it wasn’t what it should have been.  There was the man who’s job I was taking over, who was undoubtedly only nanoseconds away from the corporate equivalent of a public stoning and who was just moments earlier the topic of my nasty banter with Floyd Patterson.  But none of those things ran through my head because the first thing I noticed was Albert’s disturbing appearance.

Albert looked like his body had been closeted for many months, left vacant with no tenant to perform daily upkeep, water the flowers and hang exterior charm.  Black stubble cast an ominous shadow across the otherwise pallid and waxy crust that stretched over his cheekbones.  Wispy vines of hair were thinly coated with that dull glaze generated from days of neglect by an inattentive groomer.  His suit shared the same disorderly opinion of his hair.  And while a pressing from a good steam iron may have smoothed out the creased roadmap that wrapped around Albert’s corpse-like frame, the long stain of coffee that began at his lapel, traveled across his rumpled shirt and loosened tie was something that could only be remedied by a trip to the dry cleaners.  His eyes were gone.  Two blackened caves had replaced them, swallowed them and digested their vitality, and they appeared to want to consume me as well.  I shuttered and the paper towel I was using to dust the stray water off of my hands fell through my fingers and fluttered to the ground.  Standing in the doorway to the stall, Albert Wentworth looked like a bloodless apparition.

“Albert.”  I managed, and that’s all I could manage.  My brain snagged the conversation that had just transpired and I was reeling, trying to remember what I had said.

“How’s it going Larry?” he asked without coming out of the stall.

“F-Fine.  It’s going fine Albert.  Are you ok?”

He studied me for a second and then came straight out of the stall, stopping only inches from my face.  Albert looked straight into my eyes, peering into my soul, contemplating my motives and estimating my intentions.  From up close I could see the red branches of river that flowed over the beds of white that used to be his eyes.  There was a slight shimmy and his eyelids flickered unsteadily hinting that although we were sharing a capsule of breath, Albert Wentworth was someplace very, very far away.  Not even the lingering shroud of day old Marlboro’s could filter the sickness that he was secreting into the air.  I glanced at the door, trying unsuccessfully to not look afraid.  But when I breathed in it draped all around me, creeping into my body like a turbid fog.  I could smell it, taste it.  He was on the edge.  Hopefully he was on the edge.  I prayed to God that Albert was just on the edge; that he had not yet slipped on the sands of rational thought and fallen down.

After a slow blink his eyes relocated from my eyes to the mirror behind me and Albert seemed intrigued with what he saw.  He stepped past me and approached the mirror cautiously, like a dog gauging it’s reflection, uncertain, weighing the potential threat and deciding whether or not it should attack.

“Albert are you ok?”  I tried again.  “Can I help you?”

“Can you help me Larry?” he slowly replied to the mirror, pulling on the pouches of black that rested on his cheeks.  He twisted around.  “Can you help me? Help me with what Larry?”

“Listen Albert,” I said while taking a simultaneous step backwards.  ”You don’t look so good.  I just meant, you know, if you’re sick or something…”

“If I’m sick what?” he interrupted, blistering me with his eyes and stepping closer.  “Can you help me if I’m sick Larry?  Is that what you meant?”

I had backed up against the stalls.  I think Albert could sense my verging panic.  He took a deep breath and looked off to the right.

“No…I’m not sick Larry.  I’m not sick.”  His gaze dropped to the ground and he deflated a bit, leaning against the sink.  “I’m sorry.  I’m not sick”

“It’s ok.  You just…you don’t look so good, you know?  You look tired.”

His hands made a cup and wrapped themselves around his face and Albert was sobbing.  If there was ever a time in my life that I felt completely incompetent and thoroughly helpless, this was it.  As Albert Wentworth unraveled in front of me, I knew that he was inches away from losing his job and I knew that somewhere else in his life there was something going on big enough to eclipse everything in his world, his work, his personal care.  To top it off, here he was losing it in front of the guy that was replacing him.  Add it all together and you’ve got one hell of a recipe for a breakdown.  What are you going to say to a guy under those conditions?  I had no idea what to say to him but I rested my hand on his shoulder and tried anyway.

“Easy Albert.  Easy now.  It’s ok buddy.  Everything is going to be ok.”  I wasn’t sure that everything was going to be ok but Albert didn’t flinch when I put my hand on him so I figured I must be on track.  “Let it out Albert,” I said as he cried harder.  “Let it out.”  His back responded to my pats by heaving and shaking.

“It’s not going to be ok Larry.” His voice was muffled beneath his hands.  “You know that and I know that.”  Albert pulled himself up to a full sitting position on the sink.  He leaned his head back against the mirror and closed his eyes.  “It’s not going to be ok.  I’m finished here.”

He was right.  Of all the uncomfortable and awful things that could have been going on with him, he picked the one thing that I couldn’t argue with.  He was done at Corlan, Romero and Vanderbilt.  And Albert was no dummy.  To patronize him and say everything was fine would be an insult.  That wretched panic that had seized me moments earlier transformed itself into a subtle melancholy and I leaned up against the sink next to him and thought about my life.  He seemed to feel a little better.  At least he’d quit crying.  I glanced at my watch.  9:30.

“I’m finished Larry.  Eleven years I’ve been here, the last four as an executive and I’m all done.”

I breathed in the reality of his remarks and nodded, absent-mindedly.  I thought about my last forty-eight hours and mused about how easily it could be me melting away on the other side of that sink.  Albert had a wife and family just like me.  I felt flushed.  God damn that Corlan.

“Albert I don’t know what’s been going on with you, but it’s obvious that it’s something big.  I mean, you’re right.  You’ve been here eleven years and you’ve done a God damn good job.  No one can deny that.  Maybe if you just go in and lay it out to Corlan, you know…everything…the time you’ve put in, the deals you’ve closed, and you know, what’s been going on with you or whatever.  Maybe no one’s ever done that Albert.  I mean, we’re all so fucking terrified of Corlan that we treat him like radiation, you know?  Maybe you just need to go in there and…”

“Larry.”

I looked at Albert, who was staring at me with the most bewildered and amused look on his face.

“What the fuck are you talking about?” he asked.

“What?  I’m serious Albert.”

In the next second Albert threw back his head and let out the loudest shriek of laughter.  I just stared at him.  He doubled over and grabbed his belly.  “Oh Larry!”

I thought about what I had said and I must admit, it was pretty ludicrous.  I started to chuckle with him.

“Oh Larry!  You are so full of shit!” he roared.

I laughed a little harder.  “Yeah, you’re right.  You’re fucked!”

Pretty soon the two of us were breathless and numb.  I was slumped over the sink and Albert had slipped down onto the floor.  He couldn’t stop!  Neither could I.  My comments were lukewarm funny but the driving force behind the giggle fits was one hundred percent stress relief…for both of us.  I knew how distressed I’d been and could only imagine what Albert was experiencing.  It must have felt wonderful for him to laugh like that.

The door to the john swung open and several people from the office cautiously peered in.  What a ruckus we must have been making!  I’ll bet it was the strangest sight for them to see us, me bellied over the sink and Albert Wentworth sitting on the bathroom floor, giggling like two out of control school children.  Sarah, a secretary from accounting, was the only one to inquire about the odd sight they were seeing.

“Um…are you guys alright?”

For some reason, that set us off again.

“No!”  Albert gasped.

“Yeah me either!”  I chimed in and the two of us were off again.  I think the crew at the door realized they had happened onto a moment that perhaps had no explanation for anyone not in the restroom with us.  They eyed us tentatively for another second or so and then backed out of the room.  My side was hurting from laughing so hard but hopefully enough blood had rushed to my head to replace that clammy glaze that I came to work with.

When we had finally extinguished the last of our giggles, we sat quietly, regaining our breath.  Albert looked at me.

“Thanks Larry.”

I didn’t know what to say.  I only knew about half of what had just happened so I looked at the ground and didn’t say anything.  But Albert went on.

“These last few months have been the hardest months in my life.”

I looked up.  “Yeah?”

Albert nodded and paused.  “Yeah.  Larry Marlene is going to die.”

I froze.  Marlene was Albert’s wife.  I met her at the Christmas party my first year with the agency.

“My wife is going to die and I’m going to lose my job.  I’ve got two little girls.”

He slipped back into a quiet sob and I thought about Jeannie…about Lizzie…and about Albert.  Jesus Christ.  It was silent in the restroom except for Albert’s quiet requiem.  My mind was staggering for a magical charm, anything to make him feel better, when the door to the bathroom opened again.  This time it was Floyd.

He let the door close behind him and scanned the two of us with a cocked eyebrow and half a smirk twisted on his mouth.  I looked at him but Albert didn’t move.  He had returned to that place, that far away place, staring at the ceiling, being slowly consumed from the inside out.

“Well well.  Did the invites for this little party go out late?  I’m insulted!” Floyd said.

“Floyd get the fuck out of here,” I said.  “I’m serious.”

“Easy Anderson.  You and the unnamed soldier here having a private moment?” he chided.  I stood up.

“Floyd I’m so God damned serious right now.  Get the fuck out of here!”

His eyes never left Albert.

“Well that hurts.  Especially coming from you Anderson.  What do you say Wentworth.  Is this a private little soiree or can I join the festivities?”

I didn’t even turn around.  I could hear Albert behind me, whimpering to the ceiling and I knew that if Floyd Patterson didn’t take my advice, I was going to bruise him right then, right there.

“Floyd,” I said clenching my fists.  “I’m not going to say it again.”  But he was locked on Albert and still pissed at me from our bantering earlier.  He knew taking shots at Albert was lighting up my temper.

“Hey Wentworth!” he called over my shoulder.  “I know Anderson here is taking over your job, is he doing all your light work too?”

“God damn you Floyd!” I yelled taking a wild swing at his leering face.  I never made contact.  There was a deafening blast and before my knuckles landed on Floyd’s jaw, his heart exploded in a blooming firework of red.  Bewildered eyes looked at me, looked into me and through me…deflating.  Floyd staggered backwards on the floundering stands that had just been his legs and his mouth moved but there was no sound, any sound.  Through a smoky canyon of unmoving air, a trembling hand with peg fingers reached for me, and the bathroom became drowsy and languid.  My lungs fought to wrench the oxygen out of the stagnant air and I was coughing.

A terrible clanging tore the canvas of silence and replaced it with a piercing chime.  Floyd had toppled over and pulled the trashcan by the door on top of him, on the ground.  A smear of red on the sky-blue tile painted the path down to his lifeless body on the cold floor of the 17th floor men’s restroom.  And I stood, swaying in puzzlement, wondering what was this cinema I was witnessing and why had I been invited?  I pondered as an ice pick was jammed into my right eardrum and began taking painful stabs at the overworked hub of my central nervous system.  My right hand shot to my head and it was wet.  Blood.  I spun around and froze.

From under pernicious eyebrows, the black caves had returned and they were studying me menacingly.  His mouth was moving, moving and screaming but there was no sound, only ringing.  And at Albert’s side, safely wrapped in the prehensile grip of a madman was a black, semi-automatic handgun.

“Larry get the fuck out of here!” was the sound that broke the stream of eerie ringing.  The command was meaningless in my daze, embodied in an invisible hallucination, floating freely through murderous fantasy while I stood beneath it, paralyzed. I stumbled to the mirror.  Blood was dribbling out of my right ear and down my neck.  My eardrum had been ruptured by the encapsulated echo of the nine millimeter gunfire.

“Larry, you’ve got to go now,” Albert repeated.  I just looked at him, trying desperately to remember who he was.

A loud bang on the door jerked our eyes away from each other.

“Is everyone ok in there?” came a voice through the door.  I just looked at Albert.  I had no idea what the answer to that question was.

“There’s one person dead!” he yelled.  “Stay the fuck out of here or they’ll be more!”

One person dead?  I looked around the restroom until I found Floyd lying on his back beneath the bathroom trashcan in an expanding pool of glassy red.  I spun around and threw my head into the sink, but I hadn’t eaten anything that morning.  My stomach was unable to purge the sin and evil I had just swallowed and angrily responded with violent wrenches and tugs.

I stood up and glanced around again, dizzy.  This time, the fact that Albert Wentworth had just killed Floyd Patterson in cold blood and was now standing an arm’s length from me with a loaded weapon in his hand drove home like an iron spike hammered into the top of my head.  I began to tremble uncontrollably.

“Jesus Albert…Jesus.  What the hell have you done?!”  I couldn’t seem to get enough air.  “ALBERT WHAT THE FUCK HAVE YOU DONE?!” I screamed.

“Larry you need to get out of here.  Go home,” he said with a setting calmness that chilled me.

I looked at Floyd and I thought about my daughter.  I thought about that fucking dog food meeting.  Tears clenched me and I began to rupture.

“What do you mean go home?!” I blithered.  “What are you going to do Albert?”

But Albert had departed his body and the new tenant looked at me through glassy lenses with the ghostly coolness of a well-oiled sociopath.

“Larry my life is over.  My wife is gone.  My career is gone.  My little girls need more than that.  They need more Larry, that but I can’t be around to see that,” he said slowly and methodically.

“Albert I know it feels that way.  But you’ve got to believe me that there’s another way.”

He gave me a solemn look and then bowed his head, with his eyes set on Floyd.

“Not anymore.”

I hadn’t realized the quiet that had enveloped the office outside of the restroom.  There hadn’t been any chatter or elevator chimes in minutes.  I didn’t need to guess why.  A bellowing command came from the foyer outside the door.

“Albert Wentworth this is the police!  Put down all weapons and come out with your hands in the air!”

Albert re-wrapped his hand around the gun’s grip and looked up at me.

“Go Larry.  Go now.”

I looked at Albert Wentworth, looked him right in the eyes, and time stopped.  The implications of leaving him in the men’s restroom weighed on me like two-tons of jagged steel.  And there was a moment, a floating window of experience that rested on me and transferred Albert’s predicament onto my own life and I was drowning, wading through thick, thick quicksand with my family behind me on a massive sleigh of wood and iron.  And we were suffocating as we descended.  And there was an advancing wall of flames.  I strained desperately against the leather harness I wore, dispensing every morsel of energy I had to pull Jeannie and Elizabeth out of the clutches of death.  But the sleigh was too heavy for me.  No matter how hard I tried, how much I pulled, the perspiration that was sizzling on my skin made me slip and tumble and I was sinking…  I was depleted by an unconquerable opponent, and watched my family as they were quickly devoured.  The design of my existence disintegrated in a wisp of smoke and I was alone, solitary and barren amidst the sea of fire.  I dropped all intentions at my feet, along with the embers of my purposeless harness and I held my hands up at my sides, closed my eyes and cast back my head.  And I welcomed the blackness as it ingested my soul and transported me to my family.

I opened my eyes.  “Go with me Albert.”

“I can’t do that Larry,” he said.

“Go with me and see your wife and your little girls Albert.  They need you.”  I could see his breathing accelerate.  “Marlene needs you Albert.  She’s sick and she needs you to be strong for her and for the girls…those little girls.  They need you.”

He looked as if someone had given him a stiff whack on the back and his right knee buckled while his eyes darted around across the floor.

“What uh…What are you doing Larry…” he said, more to himself than to me and for the first time in minutes I felt that there was a chance that we were both going to walk out of that bathroom alive.  I shot a look at Floyd’s dead body.

“Are they in school now?  It’s Wednesday, of course they are.  You know, now more than ever its important that you give them big hugs and tell them how much you love them Albert.  You know that.”

“Yeah…” he said softly, dropping his head to the ground.  A thin tear shot straight down his right cheek.  “I know.”

“They need you so much Albert.”

“When I dress Stephie in the morning…she stands on the kitchen table Larry.  Just like a little princess.  She stands on the table and I spin her around and around until she’s ready.  And Tiffany wants me to cut her toast in a heart shape with cream cheese and raspberry jelly.”  He raised the hand with the gun in it and pulled the back of his wrist across his face to wipe away the streaming tears.  “And it’s all so easy Larry.  It’s all so easy until they say “When does mommy come home? When does she come home daddy?  When?”

Unexpectedly Albert’s arm shot up and the muzzle of that gun was so close to my face I could smell the steel.  I tried not to exhale.

“Larry you get the fuck out of here right now!  RIGHT NOW LARRY or you’ll be sorry!”

I sputtered.  “Please don’t hurt me Albert.  P-please don’t hurt me.”

He was in a full-blown sob.  “I’m not going to hurt you Larry as long as you leave now!” The gun lowered to his side.  “So go.  Go home to your wife”

For some reason…a reason to this day I have never figured out, I didn’t shoot out of that bathroom like a shot, sprint home to my wife and little girl and bury my head between them and cry.  I didn’t even think about them.  I thought about heart shaped toast with cream cheese and began to feel hot.

“So what are you going to do…fucking kill everybody Albert?  Kill everybody and ruin their families and your children’s lives because God dealt you a bum fucking hand?!  Well fuck you!  And fuck you for Stephie and Tiffany!  And fuck you for your dying wife and fuck you for Floyd Patterson!  I’m not going anywhere!”

“Larry…”

I was pacing between Floyd’s dead body and Albert like an agitated lion.

“You think you’re life is so different?  You think you’re the only one who loses their job and loses someone they love you selfish bastard?!”

“Larry!”

“Well you’re not!  Not even close pal!  There’s children with no parents Albert!  No one to love them!  And that’s the life you want to give Stephie and Tiffany?  I don’t believe that!  So I’m not going anywhere!  And I’m tired Albert, so tired you selfish prick!  Bur there is no way…”

“Larry you’re right.  Tell them we’re coming out.”

I stopped and turned my head.  Albert was looking at me squarely.  Sitting on the sink again, his shoulders were slumped forward and he was blinking.

“I’m tired too.  Let’s get out of here.”

The iron vest I’d been wearing released itself and oxygen rushed into my lungs but I didn’t want to miss the moment.

“I’ll tell them we’re coming out,” I said.

“Great,” he replied.

He was looking at me across the room.  “It’s going to be alright Albert.  We’re going to make this thing alright.”

“I know Larry,” he said with a slight nod.  “Go let them know, would you?”

I spun around and headed for the door with thoughts of a Disneyland vacation for Jeannie and Elizabeth materializing in front of me.  I put my hand on the door handle.

“And Larry,” he said to my back.  ”Thank you for calling me Albert instead of Wentworth.  I appreciate that.“

The back of Albert’s skull detonated just as I turned to give him a wink.  He’d planted the nine millimeter deep in his throat and swallowed his grief along with a tall glass of my hope and Stephie and Tiffany’s raspberries.

__________________________________________

There was a rocky time that I thought would never go away, just after Marlene died.  Sometimes it re-appears and weighs on each of our shoulders, usually around holidays, birthdays and anniversaries.  For the most part, the problems around the house have transformed into competition and good old-fashioned sibling rivalry…something both Jeannie and I have ample experience with; neither of us is an only child.  I’m glad that Elizabeth is older than Stephie and Tiffany.  She’s a good kid and a better role model.  It also made the expansion of our family a little less difficult.  Sticking together has proved to be our greatest strength.

Chow Chow Dog Food…seemingly a big enough deal to eclipse everything in the world.  Nothing is that big.  Although, when the girls all fall asleep next to each other on the floor, just like puppies, I wonder.  It’s too bad there isn’t an easier way to learn those types of lessons.  I left the agency for an entire year and then returned with an air-tight contract and only half-time.  Tomorrow the five of us are going to Silverthorn Lake for a picnic.