Eyes to Wonder, Tongues to Praiseby George Dila
The sounds of Harry being murdered in the office at the end of the hall are the only sounds. The grunts, the thumps. The muffled expletives. No mercy. Harry being murdered, surrounded by a violent hush, breaths held, paper shuffling stopped, conversations ended in mid-word, typewriters stilled. I, like the others who hear the murder being committed, am helpless to save poor Harry, so I withdraw to the black space behind my eyes, my own private terror hole, a cold hand taking hold of my heart. Even the telephones seem to understand. Don't ring 'til old Harry's dead. Show some respect. James Francis Bigelow, Director of Marketing, a.k.a. The Singing Assassin, a.k.a. The Prince of Fucking Darkness, murdering poor Harry for some fuck-up or other, most likely an honest mistake, maybe Harry's or somebody else's, it doesn't matter, Harry's intestines torn out, his testicles ripped off, his head battered to jelly, no problem, Harry will bounce back, be here tomorrow, resurrected with his famous grin on, and that's how it really is here at the office, and nobody who ever described it got it right.
* * *
This is one of our favorite pranks. You stick your head into somebody's office, let's say Pringle's, and you say, "Hey, Pringle, Bigelow wants to see you," and you watch Pringle's face go white, Pringle's shoulders slump, and then you say, "Just kidding, Pringle."
Harmless fun among the lads, kid's stuff, but look out, you may be next.
* * *
Introductions all around. You met Bigelow the murderer and Harry the grinner and Pringle the trembler. Then there's Weiss, Hogwood, Tyrell, Struhberg and Smith. I'm Baker. Struhberg's a she, the only one except for assorted and sundry secretaries and assistants. Tyrell's black, irrelevant but true.
We're the Direct Marketing/Domestic Markets management team. We each supervise a half-dozen or so underlings.
There was one more. Margolis. A crazyman. Self-destructive. We were friends.
Margolis and I are coming back from lunch one day, walking through the lobby of the building, and there, heading out the door, is the president of the company, the guy whose name is on the checks, let's call him Mr. Big. I've met Mr. Big twice before, at company Christmas parties. He doesn't know Margolis or me from Adam. He rarely ventures off the 15th floor. I've never been past the 14th - Human Resources.
So Margolis walks up to him and says, "Hello, sir. I'm Margolis."
Mr. Big puts on a smile, sticks out his hand for a shake and says, "Real nice to see you again, Margolis."
"We've never met, sir," Margolis says, pumping the presidential hand.
"Really," Mr. Big says, pumping back.
"You know, sir, you and I have something in common," Margolis says, his eyes popping with excitement.
This stops Mr. Big for a fraction of a second, his smile slips the slightest bit, then comes back on full.
"Really?" he asks with a hearty, just-one-of-the-boys laugh. "How's that Margolis?"
"Neither of us is going any further in this company," Margolis says "We've both gone about as far as we can go."
That afternoon Margolis is called to the 14th floor. Human Resources. We never see him again.
* * *
I have this dream.
A boy comes to the door. I know him but I don't know him. He is strange and familiar at the same time.
He hands me a note and runs off. Now I am in the empty street, looking for the address written on the note. It is a shack. I knock. A man opens the door. It is the boy, grown up. His face is blank. He has no eyes, no nose, no mouth. He says, "Hello, Baker."
The man is me.
* * *
What we market here is computers, but it could be anything. Cars. Candles. Curious George dolls. Couches. Carpet. Canned goods. Condominiums. Condoms. It wouldn't matter.
* * *
Staff meeting. Tuesday. 8 a.m. We file into the conference room. Bigelow waits at the head of the table, singing "The Impossible Dream," dramatically imitating Richard Kiley, manicured hands clasped at his chest. He has washed them clean of blood stains. His gold Ebel softly embraces his wrist above a starched, white French cuff held in place by a gold cuff link in the shape of a knot, 24 karat no doubt.
Behind Bigelow sits Mary Beth, his secretary. She'll take notes, make a report of the meeting. Harry is at the other end of the table, good as new. Grin in place. There are two empty chairs. Smith is on vacation. Margolis has been disappeared.
Bigelow abruptly stops singing.
"Where's Smith?" he asks, the corners of his mouth turned up in an approximation of a smile. He knows where Smith is, but he asks anyway.
"Vacation," someone finally says, although no lips have moved.
"Vacation," Bigelow says, shaking his head, letting us know that he considers vacations undeserved remnants of a decaying, decadent system.
"He'll be back Monday," someone volunteers.
"Maybe," says Bigelow, narrowing his eyes. He glances over his shoulder at Mary Beth. "So, let's have reports."
There is a pause. Harry-the-resurrected fills it.
"Mr. B, we have a problem with independent dealer incentives," he says. Hey, I'm still alive and kicking, is the real message he's sending.
Bigelow's eyes move to Tyrell. Dealer Incentives is Tyrell's baby. Tyrell gives Harry a quick, nasty look.
"It's . . . " Tyrell clears his throat. "It's not really a problem, as such," he says, his normal basso escalating to tenor.
"As such?" Bigelow asks.
"The D-Gs (Dealer-Groups to the uninitiated) don't care for the trips. They tell me they're tired of the trips"
"Fuck the D-Gs," Bigelow says. He takes a slim leather case from his breast pocket, slides out of it a gold toothpick and begins cleaning his teeth with the damned thing. I look away.
Harry jumps in again.
"That's what I told Tyrell, Mr. B," he says. "Fuck the D-Gs!"
Bigelow asks for a pencil. Three pencils immediately skitter toward him across the smooth table-top. He ignores them all.
"By the way, where's Margolis?" he asks with mock innocence, arching his eyebrows.
Nobody answers. Bigelow is the only person in the room who actually knows where Margolis is, where the body is buried. He thinks of his question as a little joke. A bit of levity to lighten up the meeting.
And so it goes.
Tyrell takes a few more hits on the Dealer-Groups thing. Struhberg keeps her mouth shut when Bigelow refers to the women in the department as "the girls." Harry, grinning, brings up a problem with sales commissions, causing Hogwood to take a few hits. Bigelow asks again where Smith is. "Vacation," he says, shaking his head, answering his own question. Pringle gives a sleep-inducing report on a new telephone system for the office. Bigelow says, "Forget new phones." Pringle says, "But it was your idea, Mr. B." (We all call Bigelow Mr. B.) Six month's work for Pringle, down the crapper. Weiss and I come out of the meeting untouched. Harry is the big winner. He grins. Bigelow's teeth are clean. He breaks into "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face," speak-singing a la Rex Harrison.
* * *
That afternoon Bigelow shouts down the hall, "Baker!"
I call back, "Yo!"
When summoned to Bigelow's office, each of us moves at our own carefully calculated speed. Pringle is the fastest. He has hung up the phone on his wife, stomped on feet, and knocked over waste baskets in his rush to get out of his office and down the hall. We are all embarrassed for Pringle. I move at a more measured pace, not too fast, not too slow.
As I walk into his office, he is Zero Mostel singing "If I Were a Rich Man." He stops singing.
"Shut the door," he says. "Sit." As if I am a dog.
I shut the door. I sit. I face him across an uncluttered expanse of polished rosewood.
"What's up?" I ask.
"Tyrell. What'd'ya think of him?"
I sense danger.
"He's a good guy," I say. Bigelow makes a snorting noise. I continue. "He's smart. Manages his people well. Why?"
"He's a fuck-up."
"I don't agree. Harry sand-bagged him at the staff meeting."
Bigelow looks at me like you'd look at an idiot son.
"You think I don't know Harry's tricks. You think I don't see the shit he pulls, making people look bad. Give me more credit, Baker, for Christ sake." He polishes his glasses with the end of his tie. "So what'd'ya think of Tyrell, really?"
"A fuck-up," I admit.
"Like I said," says Bigelow.
"But Dealer-Groups is tough. It's hard to keep them happy."
"Hell yes, it's hard. If it was easy one of the girls would do it."
I don;t respond to that. We're both quiet for a while. I warn myself to stay alert.
Bigelow says, "Tyrell is gone. Consider him history. I'm giving you Dealer-Groups. You can pick your own team. You up to it?"
"Sure, I'm up to it." Without hesitation.
"We'll see. You handle this, it's a big step for you, Baker."
"So, you want the job or not?" asks the Prince of Fucking Darkness. "I wanna hear you say it."
I try to imagine Bigelow as a kid. A sweet, innocent kid. Fresh-faced. Wide-eyed. Loving. He was one once. Had to be. Weren't we all?
"Of course I want the job," I say.
On the credenza behind Bigelow is a hinged, two-panel silver picture frame. In one panel is a formal portrait of a placid, middle-aged woman with carefully arranged blond hair. In the facing panel, two kids careen recklessly down a swimming pool slide, gleeful smiles for their daddy on their glistening faces. Not the devil. A family man.
I have similar pictures on my desk. A woman. A boy with a dog.
"Good. Now, get outta here. And be nice to Tyrell." Bigelow's wink strikes me as obscene. "He won't be here tomorrow."
I begin to push out of the chair, then hesitate, open my mouth to speak, then close it, indecision causing my brain to short-circuit. Bigelow has not noticed. He's already forgotten me, busily searching for something in a drawer, singing to himself, "If Ever I Would Leave You," in the manner of Robert Goulet.
What is it that I want to say? Thanks? Thanks for the opportunity, the bigger job, probably bigger pay? Or, do I want to tell him that I am different from the others -- smarter than Margolis, stronger than Tyrell, more resilient than Harry, braver than Pringle. Or, am I afraid to leave his office, face my comrades, afraid something will show on my face, some sign of my betrayal.
Back in my office.
Tyrell comes in, closes the door, sits down in one of my guest chairs. He clears his throat, getting his basso ready. His forehead shines like polished mahogany. A tic works at the corner of his eye.
"You were just in with Bigelow," he says.
I feel his fear across the desk.
He waits for me to continue. I don't. Instead, I shove a pencil into my electric sharpener. When the grinding stops, he says, "Damn Harry! Making me look bad in the meeting! Did Bigelow mention that?"
"He told me he knows Harry's tricks."
"What'd he say about me?"
"Come on Baker. What'd he say about me? He tells you shit. You're his favorite little boy."
This comment irritates me, but I don't let Tyrell see it.
"Trust me, Tyrell. He didn't say anything. Your name didn't come up." I am lying fluidly now, seamlessly. I lean back in my chair. "I'm sure he knows you're doing the best you can with the D-Gs." My eyes fall on the pictures on my desk. My wife and son smile back.
"I'm doing better than anybody ever did with the fucking D-Gs. But it's a thankless task." His voice has taken on an unpleasant whine. "I should never have agreed to take 'em. When he asked me a year ago, I should have said no."
An hour later I see Tyrell waiting for the elevator. He is facing the etched bronze doors, standing perfectly, utterly, rigidly still, hands clasped at his back as if handcuffed. I sense that, with enormous effort, he is holding himself under control, afraid that if he moves even a finger he will shatter into a million pieces.
The bronze doors open. Tyrell moves into the elevator and the doors close. The glowing arrow indicates UP. I suspect that I have seen him for the last time.
The next day I inherit his office and the D-Gs.
* * *
Coffee room. Monday, 10 a.m. Smith is back from vacation.
"Where's Tyrell?" he asks. "I haven't seen him this morning."
"Among the missing," Struhberg answers. "Since last Tuesday afternoon."
Smith blinks nervously, sensing that something awful happened while he was gone, but not knowing what or if it affects him, or if he's in trouble. Harry has his biggest grin on.
"Baker's in charge of D-Gs now," Harry says. "About time we had somebody worth a shit in that slot."
His compliment, if that's what it is, does not warm me. Smith blinks harder. Any salubrious effect of his vacation has abruptly vanished.
* * *
Some months later. Friday. 9 a.m.
From my desk I can see down the hall to the elevators. I watch as the bronze doors slide open, revealing, what? My brain needs a few seconds to make sense of it. Stepping out of the elevator, side-by-side, are Tyrell and Margolis. Both wear long, black topcoats and blank expressions. No one notices but me. The doors close behind them and the elevator moves off with a soft bong.
Am I dreaming?
Margolis and Tyrell glance at each other, then reach inside their coats and slowly,
deliberately withdraw identical handguns. I know nothing about guns but these look like very serious weapons to me, large, smooth, efficient killing machines of modern design, the ultimate high-tech examples of the gun-maker's craft.
I am mesmerized by the sight, too stunned to speak or call out. A small sound, part gurgle, part grunt, escapes my throat. My hand, only a few inches from the telephone, is lead. Too heavy to move.
The two men pause for a moment, standing in identical, vaguely military position, like something they've learned, their guns held flat against their chests, muzzles angled toward the ceiling. Then, almost in unison, they lower their weapons and, with a quick, practiced movement, work some kind of cocking mechanism, WRACK! is the sound it makes. I cannot move or speak, but now I notice that my mind is screaming NO! Still, no one has seen them but me.
Now, as if they have rehearsed, they turn back-to-back and begin moving together down the hall, Margolis facing the offices on my side and Tyrell facing the offices on the other side, guns held straight out, in firing position. Struhberg and Pringle, in the offices closest to the elevators, will die first. I hear a high squeak of surprise, probably Struhberg, and then the killing begins.
The guns make a terrible sound, a dull thudding that echoes along the hallway. There is screaming. There are shouts. There is running. There is wood cracking and glass shattering. And there is the awful smell, a combination of burning and blood and fear. Finally, Margolis stands at my open door.
"Baker!" he says, a smile breaking across his face. "Baker, I thought you'd be long gone from this dump."
My brain feels like it's wrapped in cotton wool. I try to focus on the pictures on my desk. I think I say his name. "Margolis."
"Baker, you gotta get the hell outta this joint. It ain't worth the hassle, man."
Tyrell, busy killing Smith across the way, doesn't notice as Margolis lifts his weapon and fires four rounds into the wall above my head. He winks as he slaps a new clip into his gun, then moves to the next office. Harry dies, begging for his life, no grin on.
They reach the office at the end of the hall, the scene of so many murders. Bigelow will be the last to die. I hear him bellowing "Oh What a Beautiful Morning," bravely, I think, imitating Gordon McRae, and then the fusillade, both men emptying their guns into our despised leader.
It is quiet. I have not moved from behind my desk. I hear Margolis and Tyrell coming back down the hall, Tyrell saying, "I'm gonna check out Baker, make sure he's dead, that motherfucker got my job."
And Margolis tells him, "I made sure, Bro. He's deader than hell. Trust me."
And Tyrell, coming closer, says, "I ain't taking any chances, he stabbed me in the back, man. Got my office and my job."
Still I cannot move, and now he is at my door.
He's found me, alive.
"Hey, Baker, what's your problem? You look like you seen a ghost, pal. You okay?"
It is Harry, with his grin on. I focus on his face.
"I guess I was daydreaming," I say. "About Tyrell and Margolis. You ever wonder what happened to 'em, Harry?"
"Don't know, don't give a shit! But I do know the Prince wants to see you."
"Yeah, sure," I say, assuming that Harry's playing our game. "Tell Caruso I'm busy. I'll catch his act later."
"Baker, look at me. I'm not kidding. This is not a kidding face. The boss wants to see you. I wouldn't keep him waiting if I were you."
When I walk into Bigelow's office a minute later he is thumbing through a stack of computer print-outs, singing "Some Enchanted Evening" like Ezio Pinza . . . "stranqe-ooorr" . . . rolling his Rs with gusto.
"The numbers look good, Baker," he says, letting the stack of print-outs drop to the desk. "Looks like we're making some headway with the D-Gs."
"They like the new product line. They're juiced up about the new incentives, too."
"You've caught their eye on the 15th floor, Baker. The big boys. They like what you're doing. Don't fuck up."
"I think I have things under control."
"Having a little success is a double-edged sword, chum. It gets you noticed. But then we expect more. You're in the spotlight. If you screw up, everybody knows."
"Is this a pep talk?"
He ignores my sarcasm. "Ever been on the 15th floor Baker?"
"The 15th floor gives new meaning to the word extravagant, Baker. Posh. The old man," he says referring to Mr. Big, "likes his creature comforts."
"Fresh flowers on every desk. Carpeting this thick." He shows me with his fingers. "Art on the walls. Not cheap prints. Originals. Oils."
"They tried to get me to move up there a couple of years ago. I said no. They told me they wanted all the execs on the same floor. I told them I wanted to stay here with my people."
"Well, it's nice to have you so close," I say with a tiny smile.
He returns the smile, this casual intimacy our little secret. "Yeah, sure." He chuckles. "I use an old fashioned management technique, Baker. Fear. It works for me. People seem to respond to it. But you're not afraid of me are you, Baker."
"No, sir, I'm not."
"As I thought." He glances at his gold Ebel. "So, any questions?"
I pause, consider hard before saying, "Just one. What ever happened to Margolis?"
"Hm, Margolis," Bigelow says thoughtfully, nodding, "Friend of yours, right?"
"We were friends."
"He never got in touch with you, huh?"
"Never heard from him."
"That's usually how it is. We seldom hear from 'em again."
"So he just got fired?"
"Margolis had potential. Smart kid. But crazy. Reckless."
"Harmless," I add.
Bigelow nods. "Yeah, probably. If you want, I can find out where he is. Let you know."
"Sure." I don't ask about Tyrell.
He glances at his desk calendar. He is finished with me.
"Tell Pringle I want to see him."
I walk down the hall feeling, what? An odd mixture of emotions. Giddiness, with a touch of foreboding and a dash of spite. My steps feel light, as if I am walking on the moon. I stick my head into Pringle's office.
"Pringle, the boss wants to see you," I say. "I'm not kidding this time."
I don't wait to see his reaction. The games are over.
* * *
I have this dream. I am alone on a stage, facing a crowd of thousands. Spotlights sweep the stage in great, bright arcs, as if searching for an escaped prisoner. Each beam stops when it finds me, and finally I am pinned in a blinding, burning circle of light
I open my mouth and begin to sing.