Time’s Bending Sickle

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26. A Hell of Time

Howell had a serious, almost sad expression on his face, but something about his eyes and body language was in conflict.  I was reminded of the undertaker at Tillie’s funeral sympathizing with Jean after selling her a twenty-thousand dollar casket.  Howell sat in Cullen’s old office now, at an expensive new desk.  Cullen’s antique globe stood in a new mahogany stand by his chair; Howell gave it a spin.  He did not ask me to sit.

“Tony, you’ve no doubt heard that an LBO forces a company to be more efficient, more disciplined, to do more with less.”

“I’ve heard that.”

“We can’t afford to carry people for sentimental reasons.”

“Of course.”

“Our sales are going to focus now on the really big jobs.  We don’t have time for the little ones.”

“Schools, hospitals.”

“Yeah, that sort of thing.  I know that’s been your specialty.”

“I’ve helped with the games.”

“We’re selling off some of our subsidiaries.  We have a nice offer for Wizardware.”

“How about Ramforce?”

He ignored the question.  “What I’m getting to is that I think you could do better elsewhere.  I don’t think you’ll be happy under the new structure.”

I was surprised I wasn’t more surprised.  “I’m pretty adaptable.”  I wouldn’t beg, but I didn’t want it to be too easy.

But Howell was getting bored and cut to the chase.  “Yeah.  Well, you can adapt elsewhere.  We’re outplacing you.”

“You’re firing me.”

“If you want to see it that way.”  He began looking through files on his desk.

“You’d be surprised how I see things.”

“You have until noon tomorrow to clean out your desk.  You will take no computer equipment, floppy discs, printouts, or files.  Goodbye, Tony.”  He picked up a file and began reading.  I left.

I went home.  I’d get my tape player and pictures tomorrow.  Although I’d have to talk to Perry, I wasn’t up to it then.  In some ways, I was relieved.  I didn’t have to act a part I felt less and less convincing in.  But I didn’t have a job, and I was uneasy about breaking the news to Jean.  It was not clear to me how much Jean could do after the buyout, particularly about Howell’s decisions on personnel matters.  What would, or could, Jean do about my job?  Howell didn’t seem at all worried.

Jean wasn’t there when I got home.  After pulling off my tie and dropping it in the trash, I got a beer and plopped on the sofa.  The mail was on the coffee table.  Southern Living, electric bill, bill from Jean’s therapist.  And one of Jean’s notebooks.  Although I had been curious about her therapy, especially since she had been so secretive, I respected her privacy.  But I guess my guard was down, for without a second thought, I opened the book and read.

Memories more and more clear.  Mom’s death seemed to break down a barrier.  Before, always had trouble putting together new memories and ordinary memories, outside memories–happy little girl, domestic mother, strict father, school, horses, summers on the lake, Jakeo.  Jakeo on the lakeo.  They stood apart from the ones B. has helped me find.  But now they come together.  Now I remember the blood and the candles at the lake.  Men in black.  Dad on the sleeping porch and the fireflies.  Zipping sound.  H. supportive, understanding, helps.  T. doesn’t have a clue.  He wouldn’t believe me.  I think he’s one of them.  He says he plays music but he was with dad.  H. says soon.

I didn’t know what to make of this.  Jakeo was a dog Jean had when she was younger, and the Cullens did have a lake house with a sleeping porch.  I supposed I was T., but I wasn’t sure about H. or B.  And who were “them?”  I was about to read on when I heard Jean rattling her keys at the door.  I closed the notebook and picked up the magazine.

“What are you doing home?”  Jean, in shorts and t-shirt, had some library books and a bag from the drugstore.

I raised my beer.  “I got fired–sorry, outplaced.”

She didn’t seem surprised.  She reacted as if I had told her I lost my hankerchief.  “What are you going to do?”

“Thanks for the sympathy.  What’s the board’s role after the buyout?  What are you going to do?”

“What do you expect me to do?  You want me to pull strings, encourage nepotism?”

“Isn’t that how I got the job?  Why can’t I keep it that way?”

Jean didn’t answer.  She was focused on the coffee table.  Dropping her bag and books, she strode to the table and picked up the notebook, looking closely at the edge.  “You read my journal.”

“I picked it up.  I didn’t realize what it was.”

“Don’t lie to me.”

“All right.  I wouldn’t have ordinarily.  I don’t get fired every day.  I didn’t read much.”

“You’re lying.  You lie all the time.”  She clasped the notebook to her chest and burned into me with her eyes.  She was furious.

“I’m sorry.  I don’t lie all the time.  What do you think I lie to you about?”

“Everything!  You lie about women, you lie about music, you lie about where you go and what you do.  You lie so you can’t believe.”

“Believe what?”  I was losing her.

“I won’t tell you because you won’t believe.”  She looked around, wild-eyed.  “Get out!  I don’t want you around anymore!”

“Jean!  Please!”

“Get out!  Now!”

“Please, sit and talk.  What’s wrong?”

“I don’t want to talk.  I don’t believe you.  Go away!”

“Where should I go?”

“I don’t care.  Just go!”  She picked up my jacket and threw it into the hall.  She ran into the bedroom and started struggling with the window.  I came in, fearful of what she might do.  The window resisted her, so she glanced around, eyes wide, lips open, and grabbed some of my clothes from the open closet.  Shoving me aside, she ran into the living room and opened the door to the balcony.

“Jean!  Don’t!”  I was afraid she would jump.  But she threw my clothes off the balcony and came back in.  I tried to grab her, but she struck me surprisingly hard and twisted away.  She was panting.  Stopping at the bookshelf, she grabbed an armload of my music scores and dumped them from the balcony.

“Get out!” she snarled, coming in and grabbing more music.  I tried to stop her again, and she kneed me in the crotch.  I backed away and sat hard on the sofa, doubled up.  I had practiced last night, so my cello was propped in the corner, not in its case.  She grabbed it and headed for the balcony.  I couldn’t move, and I couldn’t believe she would do what she did.  Without hesitating, she threw the cello over the rail.  We were six stories up.

She became less frantic, more methodical.  Out went my books, more clothes.  Finally she stopped, looked around.  I believe she would have thrown me off the balcony if she could.  I found I could move and walked to the door.  She rembered my records, grabbed a handful, and headed for the balcony.  I picked up my jacket on my way out.

Below, I found the pitiful kindling that used to be my cello.  It was not a fine, irreplaceable instrument, nothing like Clio’s Goffriller.  If I ever got a job that paid as well as Cullen, I could afford to get another as good.  But it was an old friend, and I had sacrificed much as a student to get it, and I knew where its weak spots and its strengths were–like an old love, I knew what turned it on.  I salvaged the bridge, tailpiece, neck and pegbox; the bow had landed in an azalea bush, and had not split.  But the case came down then, almost hitting me.  It was fiberglass, but the hinges sprung and it dented badly.

I gathered up shirts, underwear, socks, and carried armloads to my car.  Some of the books, music, and records had sailed into the swimming pool; others I found and loaded into the car.  It was hot, and I was suddenly very tired.  My possessions–books and music that had given me pleasure–seemed just so much litter.  I looked up at our balcony.  Jean threw down my robe and a handful of stuff that I guessed included my razor and toothbrush.  If she had exhausted all but the bathroom, she must be about finished.

Numb, not knowing what else to do, I got in the car and drove back to the office.  The receptionist gave me an odd look, but said nothing.  My office was empty, and the hall was quiet.  I sat down at my desk.  Like a kettledrum crescendo, rage welled up inside me.  I clenched my fists and teeth.  “Bitch!”  My cello, the only thing I owned that I had any feeling for, was gone.  I had been discarded, trashed, as well.  I banged on the desk until I realized my hands might get hurt, and instinctively stopped.  The anger drained away.  There was a misunderstanding, a serious mistake somewhere, a delusion.  Jean may not be rational just now, not fully responsible.  Unstable, unbalanced, delusional, mentally ill.  Maybe she is having hallucinations.  Maybe she sees whatever happens to Lady Jane Monmouth.  I ground my teeth.  These terms, these slippery, evasive words for whatever throws us together or pulls us apart, makes us hurt, help, love, or kill one another.

I pulled out my pocket calendar, and found the numbers Callie had given me.

“I can’t come to the phone now,” said Callie’s recorded voice, “but please leave your number at the beep.”  There was a pause, and then the Roadrunner said “Mbeep-mbeep,” followed by a loud crash ending in a tinkle of broken glass.  I couldn’t help smiling.

“Callie, it’s Tony.  Jean is having a bad time.  She just threw me out, so I’m no use to her.  You might get me here at 214-786-3301.”

I tried the other number, but there was no answer.  I looked around the office.  What was mine?  The tape player, some tapes, a frame with pictures of Jean and an old one of my parents.  In the desk drawer were nail clippers, aspirin, and Tums.  My canvas briefcase stayed at the office unless I was travelling–everything fit in easily.  I’ll ask at the desk if there is a check for me.  Where should they send it?  I called Callie’s second number again.

“Hello.”

“Callie, it’s Tony.”

“Hey there, Antonio.”  Her voice was bright.  “How you doing?”

“Not so good.  Jean’s in some kind of trouble and lit into me.  Threw me out.  Oh, and I got fired.”

“Lord, lord.  I’m sorry.  What about Jean?”

I explained what happened, and paraphrased what I had seen in the journal.

“Poor child.  I remember that she talked very fondly about how she and her dad used to sit on the porch at the lake and spot fireflies.  I don’t get that other stuff.”

“Jean needs a friend with some sense right now.  Can you come?”

“I’ll try.  I’ll call her now, first.”

“I wish I could do something, but I seem to set her off.  Callie, you’ve got to believe me–I haven’t been beating her or cheating on her or anything.”

“For some reason I trust you, Tony.  But if I’m wrong, I’ll slap the shit out of you.”

“I’ll try to stay at this number for a while.  Then I guess I’ll find a room.  Try me at the Holiday Inn in Irving.”

“OK.  Hang in there.”

I hung up, got out the phone book, and started to look up the Holiday Inn.  Then I stopped and called Perry’s extension.  I needed a friendly voice.

“Perry, it’s Tony.  You still have your job?”

“So far.  Say, do you mean you–”

“Yeah.  Howell says ‘outplaced.’  And I’m having trouble at home too.  I won’t be playing for a while.”

“Oh shit.  Hold it.  Are you in your office?”

“Yeah, why?”

“Abner Cross just went in the east door carrying a gun.”

“What?”

“Yeah, he’s in hunting fatigues, orange cap, with a deer rifle.  Disappear, quick.  I’ll call the cops.”  He hung up.

I was paralyzed for a moment.  The east door led to the stairs this side of the elevator, and there was no other exit on my end of the hall.  Jesus.  With a desperate surge of strength, I shoved the file cabinet against the door, then braced it with the desk turned lengthwise.  The door couldn’t be opened more than a crack.  The file cabinet was metal, but it wouldn’t stop a large caliber bullet, though the papers inside would help.  I huddled in the kneehole of the desk, drawing the phone down by me.  I had to urinate.

The elevator door chimed.  Damn–I could have made it down the stairs.  “Maclean!”  It was Abner.  He tried the door, gave it a shove.  I felt it move, but only a crack.  “Tony, you in there, buddy?  Come on out, I just want to talk.”  He was making an attempt to sound natural, but there was a hysterical quaver in his voice.  I kept quiet.  “I know you’re in there.  Just wanted to let you know what I’ve been up to lately.  Got a job selling burial insurance.  Ever sold burial insurance, Tony?  Worked nights, too, in a Jiffy-Shop.  Got fired for drinking their beer.  Wife’s gone.  Still get out to hunt a little.  Want to go hunting, Tony?”

Then the shots began.  I’ve talked about this incident before; I don’t think we need to go over it again.

I woke up in bed, terribly thirsty.  I tried to turn over but my legs felt heavy and awkward, and there was an IV in my arm and a tube leading to a pouch hanging on a stand.  My mind and eyes cleared enough to realize that I was in the hospital, and that my leg was bandaged and the bed was raised under my knees.  I found a glass of water with a straw, and drank it all.  There was a pitcher with more water, and I drank that.  My head ached, and my leg was sore, but I poked around and decided that I was not hurt anywhere else.  After a while a nurse, a friendly young black woman, brought me some pills and emptied a plastic pouch of red fluid that seemed to be draining from my leg through a tube.  Another woman brought food.  The meal was some sort of hambuger steak in tomato sauce, mashed potatoes, english peas, a doughy roll, iced tea, and a cup of melting ice cream.  I felt a wave of nausea.  I drank the tea and tasted the ice cream.

I tried to relax.  I could tell that one of the pills must have been a sedative, for I felt drowsy.  But my mind kept going over the events of what must have been the worst day of my life.  It was almost funny, almost a cartoon: fired, dumped, and shot in one day.  I thought of Callie’s Roadrunner on her phone machine–I was the coyote, walking off the cliff, standing on air till I noticed where I was, and then falling to make a puff of dust.  I started laughing, and couldn’t stop.  The tears ran down my cheeks, and my sides hurt.  Somewhere along the way the laughter turned to crying.

I dozed off and dreamt I was in the woods in Tennessee.  I knew the area I was in, for it was near my uncle’s farm.  I walked up a hill, feeling very anxious.  I knew I had to get home as fast as I could.  I thought I saw something move to my left–a flash of orange.  I hid behind a tree, but did not feel safe. Everything seemed quiet, so I moved off again toward my uncle’s house.  Abner Cross stepped out in front of me in his camouflage and orange hat, pointing his rifle, and grinning maliciously.  “Want to go hunting, Tony?”  He sighted down the barrel and pulled the trigger.

I sat up panting and sweating in the hospital bed.  Abner was not here, I repeated; he’s in jail.  Maybe they took him to a hospital, mental ward.  Maybe he’s in this hospital.  Maybe he’ll get loose and find me.  How?  He could just call information.  He could get a scalpel, or even a pillow, and smother me while I slept.  I crawled out of bed, and my leg stabbed me when I touched the floor.  Wincing, I limped to the door, dragging the IV stand.  No lock.  The pain and the movement cleared my head a bit, and I realized how paranoid my actions were.  At least, while I’m up, I could empty my bladder.  Still thirsty.

Back in bed, I tried to think in another direction.  Jean.  I reached for the phone and called.  No answer; the answering machine came on.  I told Jean to call me at the number printed on the phone cradle; I didn’t say where I was or how I got there.  Then I called again, giving the code to check other messages.  There were two, both for Jean.  One was from Callie, sounding urgent and concerned, leaving several numbers; the other was from Howell, very brief and businesslike: call him at home.

I lay back, exhausted, but wakeful.  I had nothing to read.  I turned on the TV and found nothing that held my attention.  I wondered if I could invoke Toby.

Toby huddled at the base of an old stone wall.  He seemed to be asleep under a stained and torn cloak.  His feet were wrapped in dirty strips of cloth.  He looked thin and ill.  A cannon fired nearby, and Toby jerked upright, his eyes staring.  “Captain Hall!  Captain Hall!” he cried.  He looked around frantically, then relaxed, closed his eyes, and groaned.  Other haggard men sitting in corners or shuffling along close to walls paid him no attention.  He moved slowly to his feet and climbed a stair leading to the platform that allowed the soldiers to look out over the fortifications of the town.  As he walked the platform, I could see several ships at anchor in the harbor.  One close in fired a cannon at the town; the ball thumped into the sloping wall without having much effect.  On the land side of the town an army had settled in, and trenches snaked about linking gabions that protected cannon.  I could make out maybe fifteen batteries.  The terrain was flat; tents and cooking fires could be seen for some distance.  I realized that Toby was being besieged in Parnu.

This was not exactly the escape I wanted, but I let the vision run on.   Toby stopped to speak to another thin and sick-looking soldier.  Both flinched as a mortar round sailed over the wall near them.  Fortunately, it was a solid lump–it seemed to be stone–and hit nothing in the open field below the wall.  Toby and the other soldier climbed down from the platform and walked toward a building with thick stone walls.  Inside was a long room with a low ceiling containing three long trestle tables with benches.  A man was stirring a large pot hung on a crane in the fireplace at the far end of the room.  As they approached, I smelled rotting meat.  I was still feeling nauseated, and decided I couldn’t take any more at the moment.  I shook my head and closed my eyes.  The vision was still there.  I took a drink of water, and turned on the television.  This produced an annoying static-like effect, but did not end the vision.  The man at the pot dished up a bowl of some gray substance and handed it to Toby.  I hobbled to the bathroom and threw up.  After splashing water on my face and rinsing out my mouth, I finally shook off the vision.

My inability to end the vision disturbed me greatly.  To my relief, a nurse came in with two men.  They were detectives, come for my statement about the shooting.  They were matter of fact, and registered no surprise or disapproval when I told them why Abner might have had a grudge.  After they left, another nurse came with more pills.  I kept her there chatting, asking about her work, her home life, her boyfriend.  She was a cheerful young Asian woman, Filipino probably, and indulged me for a while.  But she eventually eased herself out.  I forced myself to play an imaginary game of Dragonbreath, until, mercifully, the pills took effect.

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