Priceless Good Will: fiction

by James Reed

One of our sales reps fancied himself a photographer.  He was 60 and pleasant and soft-bellied in the way of a cushion no longer holding its shape.  His wife died after eight off-and-on years of cancer that left her smiling but speechless 24 hours a day.  Even in sleep, her lips pursed and turned upward.  Ike watched her for hours, wishing the drink in his hand would have an effect, but his sleep was accidental and late, overtaking him not long before the room filled with light.  Drawing the shade was no use.  Ask anyone.  Morning always arrives.

His life seemed endless.  The woman he hired to spend the day with his wife rang the bell each morning as he washed his breakfast dishes.  He greeted her with a cup of coffee in his hand and immediately felt, as she breezed past him, like a guest if not an intruder.  What a relief it was to be dismissed.  Except he couldn’t stand it.  Mrs. Oberlin’s manner was that of an officer called late to a crime scene.  Ike was a clumsy, well-meaning witness with nothing useful to report, and she wished he’d get out of her way.  She wasn’t rude or even bureaucratic, merely bored.

He understood.  He also burned to tell her it was his house.  He’d paid for it and was paying her salary, which on any given day seemed a terrible waste of his money because Helen never did anything, ever, which would require supervision or treatment or care beyond spooning some tomato soup into her mouth on the rare occasion she was willing to eat because she still managed the accomplishment of personal hygiene, all of it, from toothbrushing on down, with no more wits than a wind-up toy, and otherwise she sat smiling all day and all night as if she’d never heard of pain or suffering or the happiness Ike knew they’d shared in the twenty years out of thirty they’d been married.

The last ten defeated him.  He was 48 when Helen became ill, in the prime of his life, he liked to say, because he believed it, with good reason.  He logged quality accounts, and referrals came easily, so he didn’t need to hustle to increase, or even maintain, his income.  He had more time for the darkroom, and calls on clients could be scheduled so that shutterbug breaks could be tucked between appointments without either aspect of his life feeling rushed or cheated.  Stopping to snap half a roll of cobblestones casting shadows in an alley did not delay taking specs for a new order, which could be followed, before he returned to the office, by half an hour of candid shots, pedestrians on street corners, say, or drivers waiting on lights.

These were the photos on his walls, framed and arranged like a museum display.  At his own expense he’d added track lighting, an idea others liked to the point of demanding for their own offices.  Ike ended up being reimbursed in the form of a bonus renamed as a Suggested Work Site Quality of Life Enhancement Award.  A small plaque said as much, and he hung it in the narrow space by his closet among others touting his various quota achievements and memberships in associations and societies and the offices held therein.  Desktop awards—the trophies and blocks of Lucite containing medallions or miniature certificates—he kept on a credenza along the same wall.  It was a crowded little area that quite frankly looked disorganized compared with the carefully considered positioning he gave his photographs, bringing in new ones and shifting the mosaic, as it were, so that frequent visitors couldn’t help but notice a change in the backdrop even if the admiration of an individual picture was of little or no interest.

Ike, of course, hoped to the contrary.  He wanted people to spend time examining the texture of bricks and striated shadows laid down by grates.  He hoped he’d captured, in a way that drew comment, the idle thought or unguarded sorrow or even jubilation, if he happened to spot it, in the posture and carriage of a man reading headlines in a paper box or a woman waiting for a bus which might already have come.

“You crop away everything that doesn’t hurt,” he said, “or isn’t beautiful.  Essentially they’re both the same.”

He’d tell me this instead of explaining an expense report or the logic behind a bid.  Or he’d wave me off, as if I knew better.

“Sometimes you give them a bargain.  They feel they’re really getting something.  It’s priceless good will.”

If I insisted, if I pressed, he’d say, “Fine.  Take it off my margin.”

We’d neither one be happy, but we’d both pretend.

Helen’s doctor appointments, the chemotherapy and radiation, he never discussed.  Probably he delivered her to the treatments between calls on customers.  His life at the office looked just the same.  He was in and out and on the phone.  Maybe he smiled less.  It was hard to tell.  He was a fixed personality, known to everyone, good for quips and wisecracks.  There weren’t any quirks, meaning nothing obsessive he discussed.  Complaints never crossed his lips.  Neither did exultation.  He watched the world as if he enjoyed it, but except for a punch line now and then, usually in a group setting, with everybody munching on doughnuts, he stayed on the outskirts of a conversation.  His expression never changed.  He could have been eavesdropping or counting backwards from a million.  No one was sure.  He certainly did not confess, as a matter of public record, that his wife’s health was a silent, smiling wait for death, but only he could see it coming.

He still showed at company functions, the big ones, the party in December and the picnic in July.  Helen did not, and gossip, slow to start, eventually flourished.  The consensus was divorce, or the affairs leading to it.  By whom and with whom were difficult to imagine.  Ike’s photos were his public life.  His marriage was private but assumed to be happy because Helen was so personable at gatherings.  She knew by name almost everyone in the company as well as their husbands, wives, and children.  She teased and cajoled, sympathized and exclaimed.  Her absence, after years, could only mean some horrible collapse.

Ike offered explanations.  Family illness, her book club, whatever.  He seemed relaxed, thanked people for asking.  He was polite, unfailingly.

Nonetheless.  In December he sipped at a whiskey and chewed on the ice.  On a summer’s day he sat in his Bermuda shorts and nursed a flat beer.  At some point he’d be noticed buttoning his overcoat or shambling toward his car.  People wondered why he bothered.

Soon he was taking Helen everywhere.  Weekdays she stayed with Mrs. Oberlin, but at night or Saturday or Sunday he carted her around like a man with a schedule to keep.  He’d pause and chat in a parking lot.  He’d shake his head at the weather, or praise it, and he’d never say anything rude, but Helen had to be getting home.  He was anxious to be on his way.

She, on the other hand, seemed patient.  It’s the word everyone used, at least at first.  Nothing fazed her.  Then it dawned on people: nothing fazed her.

“It’s like she’s not even there.”

They’d dig through their change, push buttons for pretzels or pop.

“He acts like you’re not supposed to notice her.”

“I’m not sure she notices anything.”

Her eyes passed across the world out of habit.  She smiled but never laughed.  She acknowledged no one.  She seemed deaf and cheerful and slightly confused.

She lost weight almost daily.  Soon she was wearing wigs, ugly, ill-fitting things that told the truth Ike never admitted.  No one dared ask, but even children know the signs.

The wigs he hated because they made him helpless.  He could not arrange them or brush or comb them to look remotely like human hair.

“I’m all thumbs,” he said.  He offered me a seat.  “Mrs. Oberlin won’t even try.  Helen would die of shame to see herself.”  He stopped.  He knew what he had said.  “She looks in the mirror.  It’s like a painting.  Or TV.  I’ve no idea what she sees.”  He crumpled a napkin, a cocktail napkin he’d taken from his drawer, closing it in his fist.

I’d knocked on his door to discuss his draw.  His numbers were down.  We could make adjustments.  I’d been authorized to say so.

“I can fix and fuss all day,” he said, “and she’ll sit there, as placid as the moon, and you know what?  It never looks a single time the way she does it herself.  I wouldn’t mind it except she doesn’t mind it.  She doesn’t even know.  The brushing, the combing, it’s just something she sees.  When it stops she looks at something else.”

He opened his palm to the cocktail napkin and smoothed it on the desktop, pressing it with his fingers, from the center to the edges, over and over.  He used both hands, like a kid playing in a sandbox.

I hadn’t said a word and still felt like a liar.  In my lap was a folder full of printouts he needed to see.

Ike opened his drawer and found a highball glass.  He set it on the napkin and retrieved a bottle.  I didn’t even recognize the brand.  Next came a coffee mug, tipped to show me it was clean.  “Yes?”

“No.”

“It’s Friday,” he said.

“It’s Thursday.”

“Really.”  He blinked a couple times.  “That’s a shame.”  He filled the glass until it quivered at the rim.  “I’m sure it’s Friday somewhere, or somebody wants it to be.  Don’t you wish it were Friday?  Then you’d be going home for two days.”  He bent low and slurped at the whiskey until it was manageable.  “You could be with your wife.  Isn’t that the point of weekends?  Family togetherness?  Marital bliss?”  He raised the glass, spilling nothing, and took a quick slug.  “Cheers.  That’s what I say.”

I watched him drink down half the glass.  It wasn’t quite 2:00 in the afternoon.  I shifted my chair to be sure he saw the folders.  “Ike,” I said.

He smiled.  “It’s my second for the day.  You’d never know it, would you?  They don’t affect me at all.  I’ve been trying.  I’m awake until it’s too late to bother.  It’s like this every day.  My wife is sick, and I’m invincible.  So I slam them down, and nothing happens.  I’ll live like this forever.”  He allowed himself a courtly sip and precisely, with both hands, centered the glass upon the napkin.

Perhaps it was a gauntlet, daring me to contradict him, or to turn him in.  He was ten years older, with 15 years’ seniority.  He still produced better numbers than any three other reps.  His dip was relative but, in context, cause for concern.  More than a time too often I’d heard discussions trying not to call it a trend.

“She looks like hell,” he said.  “There’s not a damn thing I can do.”

I’m not good with anything heartfelt.  I’m lost for words.  I’m quiet and fastidious and I wait.  I spend half my life waiting while other people talk.

I was not assigned to fire him, only to make the case.

“She’s all I think about, but sometimes she slips my mind.  I’m making breakfast or trimming my toenails, it doesn’t matter.  She comes into view and I’m startled.  I don’t know who she is.  I have to remind myself.”  He slipped the bottle back into the drawer, then sat with his hands set upon his stomach, like an old man unexpectedly thinking of childhood.  “I don’t recognize her.  Isn’t that strange?  It’s maybe once a week, twice a month.  Who knows?  It shouldn’t happen ever, you wouldn’t think.”

His numbers were low but not as catastrophic as they’d become.  It was early.  Another time, I figured.  I would stop by some other day.

“She’s there,” he said, “but she’s not looking back.  I’m invisible.  I’m the one who doesn’t exist.”

Conversations in the halls and lunchroom seemed to know these facts as well as I.  A company our size is filled with homes overcome by illness.

My wife is not sick except she’s  sick of me.  I witness her affliction by the day.  It is illness without end.  It will exhaust us to our graves.

Statistically, I will die first and she will be unburdened.

There is no rule of chance offering happiness for me.

We’re both in perfect health.  Our cholesterol is good.  Blood pressure’s fine.  We subject ourselves to whatever test is prescribed and are grimly faithful to the treadmill, reading magazines while we exert, plugged into soundtracks recorded in advance.

She’s fond of old-time country tinged with gospel, barely out of the mountains.  I favor torch singers.  We’re decades out of step with popular taste, but it’s still broken hearts and losses.  She’s on tiptoes, she’s so hopeful.  My optimism’s more austere.  Comfort comes in resignation.

Either way, we’ll grind our time together, trusting only to death’s dumb luck.

Sleepless nights for me are spent laid out as if upon a slab.  I fold my hands across my chest.  I close my eyes to no effect and listen to my wife.  Her breathing is untroubled.  She does not snore.  She does not start or call.  If I’m on her mind, I’ll never know, but at night, it seems, I’m safely out of view.

In the morning she is reminded.  She has not escaped.  I have not fled.

“I suppose it’s good morning.”

One or the other of us says it.  We’re not particular who.  It pops out of her mouth or mine once someone’s half awake.  It’s a joke that keeps us civil.

Orange juice and coffee seem to help, and the fact that I still work.  There are those in the office who wish I’d retire.  I don’t think it’s personal animosity.  I’m simply an artifact, not old enough to honor but past the stage of seeming useful.  Budget specialists are a dime a dozen if you hire them young.  Two or three could take my place, fresh out of college.  Somebody’s itching to make the switch.

I wouldn’t mind, but what would I do?  I can squeeze out ten more years without even thinking.  Five beyond that might involve some impatience but not terribly much effort.  People already think I’m puttering.  I’d be ignored in peace and quiet.

At home the silence would pop like gunshots.

I’m the one in the crosshairs.  She skims across me just for practice, to assure herself it’s an option.  If I don’t leave the house I’m a stationary target too tempting to ignore.

Divorce?  Neither one of us is up to the inconvenience.  Nor am I sure either one of us deserves it.  We’ve been well behaved.  Doors do not slam in the dead of night.  Crockery’s not broken.  We don’t even indulge in petty sabotage.

I hear about marriages built as mechanisms of revenge.  People brag about them in the halls.

“With heated seats?  And remote ignition?”

“I’m supposed to freeze while the car warms up?  I’ll show him cold.  He’s got no idea what’s cold.”

I’m at an age that no one thinks I’m listening.  Other than going to work every day I have not acquired a public use for my time.  I’m lost in my own private world.

Ike’s photographs began to change.  The candid shots, the nitty-gritty cityscapes, gave way to cheesecake, as most people saw it.  “Antique porn,” one intern sniffed.  “What’s the point?”

Rescue work, according to Ike.  An oddball form of charity.  He was trying to help the model.

Her name was Marlie.  She was 19 but going on 30.  You could see it in her eyes.  She didn’t look rough, but haggard, and not all that bright, was my impression.  I wasn’t alone.  In a better world she’d have gotten treatment years before, seclusion or drugs, whichever she needed, and not been hustling drinks, on her good nights, in a scrap heap of a bar where a man like Ike walking in might look like a savior.

“She deserves a lot better,” he said.  “The place is a dive.  I was there by accident.  She was stuck.”

Ike’s lived in this city for years.  As a sales rep he knows all the streets that aren’t on the maps.  His destinations are never accidental.

I suspect Marlie wasn’t what he had in mind, but maybe he chickened out and she caught his eye instead.  It makes sense.  I know I’m not one to go very often against my own grain.

“A woman working that hard to raise her children,” he said, “you cannot fault her.  I don’t know how she does it.”

Her boy was two and her girl was four.  Their fathers were nowhere in sight.  One was dead, the other simply gone.  The dead one she swore she’d knifed herself, but Ike didn’t believe her.

“Wishful thinking,” he said.  “He’d beat her up when she got her period. ‘How’m I supposed to fuck?’ he’d say, then pound on her awhile.  Pregnancy was pretty much the same.  I don’t know how that child got born.”

If Marlie didn’t kill him, who did?

“Anybody.”  Ike shrugged.  He’d checked up on her story, out of doubt or meticulous care, take your pick.  But the name she gave was genuinely dead, the case investigated but unresolved.  “Still officially open,” said Ike, “unlike his casket.  He was shot through the back of the head.  Very big weapon, very big exit wound.  Nothing left of his face.  The cops never even questioned her.”

Ike said her alibi was locked.  I figured they’d be wasting their time.  Hoping she’d killed her boyfriend couldn’t possibly be the only fantasy running loose in her head.

For the photos Ike decked her out in diaphanous gowns.  They were sale bin remnants, nothing that came in a box with a bow.  Maybe he picked them up on the way to the shoots.  Possibly she pulled them out of her drawers.  It was hard to imagine exactly what she might find sexy.

The necklines, traced in rickrack, gaped open to show the washboard shadows of her ribs, which Ike’s lighting did nothing to disguise.  Her arms were stilts supporting her negligible weight.  Her balance, nonetheless, was precarious.  She tilted her wide, flat head as if some well of fluid needed to be drained and she was listening to its progress.  She squinted, an expression which pulled her lips open.  Her teeth poked out at angles.  They looked ruined from long use, as if most of her meals were spent gnawing.

“She’s a special lady,” Ike said, “or could be.”

She was scrawny, exhausted, and bruised, maybe crazed.  Beautifying her was quite a trick.  He reconstructed the glamour shots of another era, of movie stars and glossy, high-toned weeklies.

“We’re making progress,” he said, “but she’s got some thoughts.”  He shook his head in admiration.  “She’s got some real thoughts.  She needs the opportunity.  She needs the chance to advance herself.”

He sprawled in his chair.  If he’d started the day with a tie, he’d lost it by noon.

The low-slung streets and alleyways he’d photographed for years were piled in boxes, replaced completely by pictures of Marlie, pinups people found unnerving.  Not quite pornographic, too careful to be smut, they simultaneously revealed too little and too much.  Marlie’s stock-still poses at the breakfast table, her pained, half-witted leer washed in stacks of light, “cathedral-style,” Ike called it, provoked outrage in some, a seeping queasiness in others.

“Who’s he trying to fool?”

He traipsed through the halls unshaven, as if he’d just got out of bed, perhaps without brushing his teeth.

“He snaps her picture and comes right to work.”

“I bet he’s got rolls of the stuff.  He’s probably in half of it.”

No one survives such talk.  Repentance is pointless.

“He doesn’t care.  Look at him.  He sits in there like a king on a throne.”

It was Mrs. Oberlin who told him Helen was dying.

“How’m I supposed to respond to that?” he asked me.  “That’s why I hired her.  Helen needs a lot of care, and I need to make a living.  But you know what?  She looks the same as she did two years ago.  And two years before that.  She doesn’t talk.  She doesn’t whine.  She’s a perfect little wind-up toy.  Why is this suddenly the time?  How does she know that?”

Mrs. Oberlin stared at him, and then, a week later, said, as she was leaving, “How can you not?”

Marlie’s problems, he believed, might be repaired.  She was practically a child.  Her future wasn’t fixed.  He still had money.  Time and effort behind the lens and in the darkroom produced results.  You cropped out what you couldn’t use.  It was easy.  It took up your time.

The folders in my lap were less and less useful.  I carried them for show.

He failed to look.  I didn’t bother insisting.

Occupying his office now is a woman with ambition, a true believer whose cynicism is reserved for the unmotivated, the uninitiated who don’t swear fealty by slogan or sign-off to the endless raptures of success.  Attitude is all-triumphant.  Those without it deserve defeat.  Doubt is the muttering of traitors.

Her eyes glint.  Her teeth are capped.  She’s twenty-six and eager.  New ideas, she says, new energy.  She snaps a finger and says, “Let’s go.”  This demonstrates enthusiasm.

If there’s a problem, she’s adamant.

“Finesse it later.”  Her fingers snap.  “Let’s go.”

She’s fond of whiskey and beer, and white wine goes down like water.  I’ve seen her file.  She’s single and spending money faster than even she can make it.  An incredibly nice car, of course, and clothes, and weekend jaunts because those who work hard play hard.  It’s one of the rules.

“You want to jet,” she says, “you take on fuel.”

I heard a secretary call her Frat Girl.  She’s understood to be quite social.

We’ll see how long her numbers hold.  Booming now buys leeway later.  I’ll dither my way through the bulk of her career and, if she’s sloppy, the start of her successor’s.  I’m one of the many categories of people she does not see.  If my suits, ties, and shoes stay within five years of the fashions I’ll draw no undue attention.  My haircuts are short and at my age need never change.  Keep the soup stains off my shirts, I’ll be fine.

My wife’s affections are no more diminished than they’ve been for years.  I check the locks at night and take out the trash.  She sees to food that ought to be refrigerated.  It’s a smooth ballet, choreographed over time and stripped by now of malice and exaggerated care.  We’re relaxed.  We know how not to incite each other.

When I’m standing at the curb the house looks abandoned.  She already is making her way to bed.  The only lights on are ones I’ll turn off.  They’re interior, or in the back, and do not shine through the windows.  It is no trouble to imagine our home is empty and dead, but we’re both healthy, and, just about sunrise, one of us will wake.  Shortly after, so will the other.

“I suppose it’s good morning.”

I’ll say it or she will.  It doesn’t matter who.  I’ll be pouring coffee or she’ll be frying eggs.  One or the other will blink and be the one who answers.

“Yes,” we’ll say.  “I suppose it is.”

A fresh cup will be offered, or a plateful of seconds, and a door will be opened so the other may pass.

There’ll be no Mrs. Oberlin.  If we’re lucky, please, we’ll die in our sleep.

This piece originally appeared in Dogwood 2008

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