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A Firing Offense
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Table of Contents
Reading Group Guide
Preview of Nick's Trip
Preview of The Double
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TORN LOTTERY TICKETS and hot dog wrappers—the remnants of Georgia Avenue Day—blew across the strip. At the district line a snaggle-toothed row of winos sat on the ledge of a coffee shop. A poster of the mayor, a smiling portrait in debauchery, was taped to the window behind them. The coke sweat had been dutifully airbrushed from the mayor's forehead; only a contaminated grin remained. My Dart plodded south under a low gray cover of clouds.
I steered my car into a space a couple of blocks down and killed the engine. Several strip joints had closed on this part of the avenue in the past year, ostensibly a reaction to pressure from local citizens' groups. The reality was that frequent, serious ass-beatings and one biker murder had closed down the clubs by way of revoked liquor licenses. Now the street was irreparably lifeless, a sodden butt drowning in the rot of a shot glass. A bathhouse and the Good Times Lunch had survived.
In the Good Times Lunch an industrial upright fan stood in the rear, blowing warm air towards the door. Malt liquor posters hung on the walls, showing busty, light-skinned women held by mustachioed black movie stars. Of the eight stools at the counter, three were occupied by graying men drinking beer from cans, and a fourth by a route salesman in a cheap suit.
Behind the counter were a sandwich block, grill, four baskets hung in a large deep-fryer, and a stocky little Korean named Kim, who walked with his feet wide apart and had forearms that appeared to be made out of brick. I took a seat at one of the remaining stools.
Kim acknowledged me with a slight tilt of his head. I ordered a fish sandwich, fries, and a can of beer. He brought the beer, and I tossed a quarter of it down as I watched him dump the frozen fish and potatoes into the same fryer basket. For the next five minutes I took long sips of beer and occasionally glanced out the window at the mounting northbound rush-hour traffic on Georgia Avenue.
The only sounds in the carryout were that of the fan and the barely intelligible music coming from Kim's radio, the dial of which was set on WOL. I thought of work, my reprimand, and my indifference to the subject. No one spoke to me.
I guess that was the day everything began to come apart. The day of my reprimand. The day the old man phoned me about the boy.
A rock gets pushed at the top of a hill, and it begins to roll, and then it doesn't matter who did the pushing. What matters is that nothing can stop it. What matters is the damage done. So how it started, I suppose, is insignificant. Because what sticks now is how it ended: with the sudden blast and smoke of automatic weapons, and the low manic moan of those who were about to die.
EARLIER IN THE DAY, the name "Ric Brandon" had printed out across the screen of my desk phone, indicating an interoffice call. I had sipped my coffee and let the phone ring several times until the process reversed itself. His name disappeared letter by letter, from right to left. The call was then forwarded up to Marsha, our receptionist. Presently my phone rang again. It was Marsha.
"Nicky?" she said.
"Ric Brandon's looking for you," she said tiredly. "He'd like to see you in his office as soon as you have a minute." Her words hung in the receiver apologetically.
"Thanks, Marsha." I picked up my coffee and headed for the john. The sound of printers, typewriters, and distaff voices swirled around me as I stepped down the hall. Passing Marsha's desk, I smiled and tapped the "Elvis Country" plaque that she had proudly set next to the switchboard.
I pushed open the door to the men's room and moved to the sink to wash up. In the mirror I saw the scuffed-up heel boxes on a pair of wing tips beneath the stall door. They belonged to Seaton, the controller. His trousers were around his ankles as he stood urinating into the toilet. I splashed some water on my face and looked in the mirror: I was thirty years old, and had drunk several beers backed with bourbon the night before.
I had figured out, incorrectly as it turned out, the reason for Brandon's summons. One day earlier he and I and an executive from one of the local factory wholesalers had gotten together for lunch. The executive was one of those corn-fed, brighteyed men who seem to be hired by corporate giants like General Electric specifically for their slack-jawed lack of intellectual curiosity.
Our lunch began to deteriorate when the dapper little fellow had bragged about his company's impending contract on, as he put it, "that Star Wars thing." Despite a deadly stare and a nudge in the ribs from the equally vacuous Brandon, I plunged head on into a political discussion on the subject, though my enthusiasm was admittedly rooted more in my disgust for the man across the table than in my limited knowledge of the somewhat ridiculous, juvenile image of War in Space. At any rate, the executive's smile, that of a game-show host, faded, as he nervously touched the knot of his yellow tie. Our business lunch had gone immediately to hell.
Now I was about to receive what business people call, without irony, a "slap on the wrist."
On my way to Brandon's office I chewed a Lifesaver and passed by the switchboard once again. Over Marsha's desk was a huge, colorful bar graph titled "Nutty Nathan's Sales Leaders!" I noted with pleasure that Johnny McGinnes' bar was far above the pack.
Ric Brandon's office was rather spartan, with only a calendar hung on the bare walls around his metal desk. The bookshelves behind him housed software and two slim volumes, A Passion for Excellence and See You at the Top. On the computer table next to his desk was a keyboard, printer, and amber screen displaying the previous day's sales report sorted by store location, salesman, model number, sell price, unit cost, and profit margin.
Brandon smiled his toothy, equine grin as I entered. He was a big-boned Swede from Minnesota, a former high-school athlete who, at twenty-five, had already become soft and fleshy. He wore his navy suits and Johnston and Murphys proudly, and always had an unread copy of the Wall Street Journal on his desk. (Once, on a business trip, I had watched him stare glassy-eyed at the front page of the Journal for the duration of the flight.) Like many ambitious, recently graduated business majors on their first professional job in the D.C. area, he had a little boy's notion of how a businessman should look and act.
"Close the door and have a seat, Nick," he said.
I did both. Though he was already taller and broader than me, he had raised his chair higher than the others in his office to gain the psychological advantage, undoubtedly a tip he had eagerly extracted from one of his ladder-climbing guidebooks. He pulled out the bottom drawer of his desk, parked the soles of his wing tips on the edge of it, and leaned back.
"I've got an ad deadline for this afternoon," I offered, hoping to get it over with quickly.
"This won't take long," he said, segueing into a dramatic pause. I could hear the ventilator blowing and the murmur of the all-news radio station he listened to in his office. "As the sales manager of this company, I have to do certain things I really don't enjoy doing, but that are necessary in order to establish a continuity of discipline. One of those things is terminating those who consistently and deliberately fail to follow company policy."
I nodded that I understood, and he continued.
"Yesterday I told you that George Adgerson in our Marlow Heights store was getting to be a real problem—blowing customers out the door, smoking on the floor, not wearing his name-tag, things like that—and I gave him several warnings. First thing this morning I walk into his store to let him go, he says to me, 'If you plan on firing me, Brandon, you should know that I've spoken to my lawyer, who advised me that if you do fire me, you had better be firing all the Caucasian salesmen who break your rules as well.'"
"What'd you do?" I asked, forcing down a smirk as I thought of Adgerson, up in Brandon's face.
"Oh, I fired him," he said casually, with an obligatory and false trace of regret. "Personnel can deal with his attorney, if he has one. The point is, Nick, he was ready for me. And you tipped him off."
I stared at my shoes for a while in what I thought would be a fairly reasonable display of humility, then looked up to see Brandon's facial muscles twitching as he awaited my admission. "Adgerson was a good man," I said slowly, "and he wrote a lot of business over the years for Nathan's. When we worked the floor together over on Connecticut Avenue, he had a huge customer following. To let go of a valuable employee just like that, because, I don't know, he blew smoke in somebody's face, or whatever—I just thought the guy deserved to know what was coming down."
"It's not your job to think of anything when it comes to salesmen and managers. I'll do the thinking in that department, understand?" I nodded, his features softened, and he continued. "If I didn't like you, Nick, I'd start looking for a new advertising director. I've discussed this with Rosen. He feels that your actions are a serious infraction. I've convinced him, however, that you're salvageable."
He hadn't of course, spoken to Jerry Rosen, the company's general manager. He was merely trying to throw a scare into me while at the same time taking credit for being a regular Joe.
"Nick," he said, "all I want for you to do is get with the program." His thumb and forefinger met to form an "O" as he talked, a peculiarly delicate gesture for such a large man. "This is a very tough year for us. Margins have eroded to the point where we're working on ten dollar bills. Overhead is way up. And the power retailers are coming to town to put independents like us out of business. What I'm saying is, I need your experience on the team. I'm putting the ball in your court, Nick. What do you think?"
"I think you're overheating the sports metaphors," I said. Then I shrugged sheepishly and grinned like Stan Laurel.
"I'm serious," he said. "I really believe in this company. I want us all to move forward, and I want you to be a part of it."
Coming from a sales background, I had a natural distrust for managers. I didn't really dislike Brandon; I guess it was something closer to pity. I wanted to tell him to loosen up his windsor knot, sleep with some strange women, and generally act in an irresponsible manner for the next five years. But like many men my age, I was only mourning the passing of my twenties.
"I'll make the effort," I said. He showed me some teeth, put his hand in the shape of a pistol, pointed it in my direction, and squeezed off an imaginary round. I smiled back weakly and left his office.
I picked up a stack of messages from the front desk, where Marsha had fanned them out in a decorative pattern. On the way back to my own desk I passed a girl from our service department who had an unusually tight and beautifully formed ass. We looked each other over, and I got a smile. As she slid past, I smelled dime-store perfume laced with nicotine.
I looked over the messages at my desk. Two were from radio reps and a third was from a salesman from one of the local papers. My rep at the Post, Patti Dawson, had called. I threw all of these messages away but made a mental note to return Patti's call. The last message was from a Mr. Pence, a name I didn't recognize. I slipped that piece of paper beneath my phone.
For the remainder of the afternoon I traded retail clichés ("Katie, Bar the Door," "Passin' Them Out Like Popcorn") with Fisher, the company merch manager, and finished laying out my weekend ad for the Post.
A breathy intern answered the phone when I called the Post looking for Patti Dawson. She said that Patti was on the road and that I should try her car phone.
After four tapping sounds and two rings, Patti answered. There was some sort of light pop in the background, Luther Vandross or one of his imitators. Patti kept her car stereo cemented on WHUR.
"What's your schedule like today?" she asked, her voice sounding remote on the speakerphone but characteristically musical.
"I've just finished my Ninth Symphony," I said. "Later I'm performing brain surgery on the President."
"You got any time in your busy day to give me an ad?"
"It's done. I'm gonna cut out early. I'll leave the ad on my desk. You can just drop Saturday's proof here and I'll correct it tomorrow."
"I'll also drop our new rate card by."
"Courtesy of those philanthropists at the Washington Post?"
"You got it," she said, her voice beginning to break apart. I said I'd talk to her later, and she said something I couldn't make out, though somewhere in there she used the word lover.
I switched off the crane-necked lamp over my drawing table, considered calling Mr. Pence, but decided to take his number with me and leave before any more assignments came my way. En route to the stairwell I passed the glass-enclosed office of Nathan Plavin. He was sitting in a high-backed swivel chair with his chin resting on his chest, watching his fingers drum the bare surface of his oak desktop. Over him stood his top man, Jerry Rosen, who was pointing his finger very close to Plavin's chest. Nathan Plavin, the owner of a thirty-million-a-year retail operation, looked very much at that moment like a little boy being scolded.
I looked away, oddly embarrassed for him, and passed by Marsha's desk. Reaching the stairwell, I hollered back to her that I was gone for the day. Marsha yelled to me that Karen had called, but I continued down the steps.
A nearly lifesize cutout caricature of Nathan Plavin dangled from the ceiling at the bottom of the stairwell. I had designed it two years earlier and since then used it in the head of all our print ads and mailers. The caricature depicted Nathan with an enlarged head topped by a crooked crown, overflowing with stereos, televisions, and VCRs. There were dollar bills in his clenched fists, and a wide smile across his fat face. One of his teeth was golden.
KIM BROUGHT MY FOOD and set it down. The fish had no taste and the fries tasted faintly of fish. I quickly finished my early dinner and brooded some more over another beer. Kim took my money and nodded as I headed out the door.
My apartment was the bottom floor of a colonial in the Shepherd Park area of Northwest. I walked around to the side entrance, where my black cat hurried out from behind some bushes and tapped me on the back of my calf with her nose. I turned the key and entered.
She followed me in, jumped up on the radiator, and let out an abbreviated meow. I scratched the top of her head and tickled the scar tissue on the socket that had once housed her right eye. She shut her left eye and pushed her head into my hand as I did this.
In my bedroom I undid my tie as I pushed the power button on my receiver. The tuner was set on WHFS, and I moved the antenna around on the back of the set to better the reception. Weasel was ending his show, predictably, with some NRBQ from the Yankee Stadium LP. I switched over to phono and laid Martha and the Muffins' "This Is the Ice Age" on the platter.
I walked through my tiny living room to the kitchen. Behind me I heard the four paws of my cat hit the hardwood floor simultaneously with a mild thud. She followed me into the kitchen, jumped up on the chair that held her dish, and sat down. I found a foil-covered can of salmon in the refrigerator, mixed a bit of it into some dry food, and put it in her dish. She went at it after the obligatory bored look and a slow blink of her left eye.
The phone rang. I walked back into the living room and picked up the receiver.
"Is Nick Stefanos in?"
"My name is James Pence," an old voice said on the other end of the line. I fished his message from my shirt pocket. "I'm sorry to bother you at home."
"I received your message at work," I said. "Forgive me for not returning your call—I get a load of people calling me all day, trying to sell me advertising space or services. If I called them all back, I'd never get anything done."
"I'm not selling anything," he said, though there was a hurried, desperate edge to his voice.
"What can I do for you then?"
"I'm Jimmy Broda's grandfather."
After some initial confusion I brought Broda up in my mind. He was a kid, late teens, who had worked briefly in the warehouse of Nutty Nathan's. We had struck up a mild sort of friendship after discovering that we had similar interests in music, though his tastes ran towards speed metal and mine to the more melodic. I had chalked that up to the difference in our ages. Broda had apparently quit a couple of weeks earlier. I had not heard from him, assuming he had joined the ranks of other young, low-level employees who tended to drift from one meaningless job to the next.
"How is Jimmy?" I asked.
"Your personnel girl called a couple of weeks ago and said he had not reported to work for two days straight. Asked me if I knew where he was. Of course I didn't know. It wasn't unusual for him not to come home for stretches at a time—the crowd he ran around with and all that."
I had no idea what he was talking about or what he wanted. I had the urge to excuse myself and hang up the phone right then.
"Two days later," he continued, "personnel calls again. She says to inform Jimmy, when I see him, that he's been terminated. Job abandonment, I think she called it."
"Listen, Mr. Pence. I'm sorry Jimmy lost his job—"
"He liked you, Mr. Stefanos. He mentioned you at home more than once."
"I liked him too. But Jimmy probably had a bigger idea of what I am than what's reality. Those guys in the warehouse, they think anybody who works upstairs and wears a tie has a piece of the action. I'm just a guy who lays out ads and buys time on the airwaves. I don't even talk to the people who make hiring and firing decisions. What I'm saying is, I don't have the influence to get Jimmy his job back."
"I don't need you to get his job back, Mr. Stefanos," he said. "I need you to help me find him."
A long silence followed. He made a swallowing sound, then cleared his throat.
"Why are you calling me?" I asked.
"I bought a TV years ago from John McGinnes in your store on Connecticut Avenue. This year I bought a toaster oven from him. He's my man there," he said with that peculiarly elderly notion of salesman ownership. "I talked with him yesterday morning. Said he didn't know anything but you might. Said you're pretty good at finding people when you put your mind to it." I made a mental note to slam McGinnes for that.
"Mr. Pence, if you're worried about your grandson you should call the police," I said with what I hoped was an air of finality.
"Please. Please come see me, only for a few minutes. I have something to give you, anyway. A cassette tape you made for Jimmy." I remembered it, the usual soft punk and hard pop. Though it was no big deal, the Broda kid had seemed mildly touched when I gave it to him.
"I have somewhere to go tonight," I said, "But maybe I could stop by for a minute. I mean, if it's on my way. Where do you live?"
"I'm on Connecticut, the first apartment building northeast of Albemarle. Apartment ten-ten. Do you know it?"
"Yes." It was right up from the store.
"I'll meet you in the lobby then," he said excitedly.
"Right. Twenty minutes."
MY GYM BAG was in the trunk as I headed down Thirteenth Street. Bob "Here" was the DJ on HFS and spinning some post-patchuli oil nonsense. I pushed a Long Ryders tape into the deck. The first song, "Sweet Mental Revenge," had a guitar break reminiscent of the Eagles, the difference being that the Ryders had testicles. I turned up the volume.
I made a right on Military Road, passed under Sixteenth, and neared the Oregon Avenue intersection where I hung a left into a severely sloped, winding entrance to Rock Creek Park. As kids we had as a rule driven this stretch of the park with our headlights off, navigating by the moonlight that cut a path through the treeline above. God or the dumb luck of youth had always brought us safely through; tonight, even with my hi-beams on, the darkness seemed to envelop me.
At the bottom of the hill I crossed a small bridge and turned left onto Beach Drive. Soon after that I made a right on Brandy-wine and cut over to Albemarle, cruising by million dollar Tudor houses with dark German and British automobiles parked, like hearses, in their driveways.
At Connecticut and Albemarle I looked across the street to the left. Though there was no foot traffic at this hour, Nutty Nathan's was open. I decided against dropping in on McGinnes. By this time of day the effects of malt liquor and marijuana would have rendered him incoherent.
I parked on Connecticut, an after–rush-hour privilege, and walked across a brownish lawn to a tall, tan-brick building. As a salesman at Nathan's on the Avenue, I had often delivered and installed air conditioners here for the elderly residents of these rent-controlled apartments.
When I entered the first set of glass doors, a guy in the lobby who looked to be on the green side of seventy caught my eye. He motioned to a bored-looking young woman behind the switchboard and a buzzer sounded. I pulled on the second set of doors and entered the lobby.
The old man strode towards me quickly and with deliberate posture, though he looked as if it pained him some to do so. His handshake was firm.
"I'm Nick Stefanos."
"I knew when I saw you," he said in a self-congratulatory manner, then looked me over. Either Pence liked what he saw or felt he had little choice; he pointed a slim hand towards the elevators.
We passed an obese young security guard with a seventies Afro who was talking to the woman at the switchboard and ignoring us and all the old people sitting around the bland lobby. The lobby had the still, medicinal smell of a nursing home.
Pence took me to a metal door that led to the elevators and attempted to pull it open. A look of mild panic appeared on his face as the weight of the door knocked him off balance. The security guard said something behind us about the old man forgetting to take his Geritol. We heard the laughter of the guard and the woman at the switchboard as we entered an elevator.
The old man was silent as we rode to the tenth floor, though his lips were moving and there was a slight scowl across his face. He was wearing workpants pulled high above his waist, a white cotton T-shirt, and oxford Hush Puppies that he wore laceless like loafers. The thick leather belt drawn tightly around his abdomen looked water-damaged and was permanently bent in several spots. Time had eaten him like a patient scavenger.
The elevator bounced to a stop, causing Pence to grab the handrail with reluctance. The doors opened, he bolted out and I followed. He stopped at 1010 and with no trouble at all this time negotiated the lock and door.
We entered as he flipped on a master light. The apartment, with its florid, cushiony sofa and armchairs and a curio cabinet filled with delicate porcelain figures, had obviously been decorated by a woman. But a glass caked with milk on the table and the general disarray of the place told me that his wife or companion was gone.
"Have a seat," he said. I chose one, noticing as I sat that its cushion contained a rogue spring. I remained seated, as none of the other chairs showed better promise. Though it was rather cool, I had the desire to crack a window. His apartment had the smell of outdated dairy products.
"Goddamn security guard," he muttered, unable to forget the fat rent-a-cop in the lobby. He quit pacing and lit on a seat next to an end table, on which sat a crystal lamp, a TV directory, an ashtray, and a pack of smokes. Pence shook one from the deck directly to his mouth, looked up at me, and said, "You mind?"
"Not at all." He lit it with a Zippo and let out a long stream of smoke that continued to pour out erratically as he began to talk.
- On Sale
- Jun 29, 2011
- Page Count
- 288 pages
- Back Bay Books