Saturday, September 10, 2005

Start Something, Part III


Part III.

It came down to the same routine in the end, every time, whether it was a Sunday or a Tuesday or any day. As long as he was in the office there was time; it only took four hours to drive to D.C. And as long as there was time, people thought, it could be used up. Calls were made, parties conferenced in, further negotiations on pricing, track down the Finance VP at home and tell him Ed wants to talk. Frustrated wife, who would call on a Sunday. John, the messenger, riddled with bullets. Endless talk, arguing over administrative fees, stressful delays. Eventually John had to intervene: if I do not get started with the photocopies and the binders soon, I won’t have enough time to drive down there at all.
You got all day, a VP growled.
No, let’s wrap this up now, Ed chimed in fortunately. This should have been done Friday. He’s got four hours ahead of him. And it’s Sunday, goddammit.
Photocopies, color toner, punching holes, paper jams, the whole bit. Didn’t the mail room guy tell John he’d already made the cover sheets? Then where the hell were they? John carried the project through t he usual snags to the end. Finally he had eight pristine copies of the proposal in white plastic binders, cover letters signed by the president of the firm, ready to deliver. In spite of it all, somehow it all got done faster than he expected. He left the office at a respectable 2 p.m. on the nose, crossing into New Jersey without difficulty, driving south, the product of his Sunday in a cardboard box, sitting next to his laptop on the backseat.

The drive was mundane and without incident. He listened to National Public Radio and ESPN, hoping to catch something interesting. He longed for football season but it was still two weeks off. He kept his eyes open, but there was nothing worth noting whatsoever on Interstate 95 save the unexceptional (by comparison) skylines of Philadelphia and Wilmington, Delaware.
The Institute was downtown, a few blocks away from the Library of Congress, which he had just heard about the night before on TV, life is full of weird coincidences. His destination was actually underground, in the basement of one of those nondescript gray stone buildings where Congressmen had their offices and all those pork barrel agencies shuffled paper around and processed data and released new studies once a year on some topic or another.
There was a Courtyard Marriot hotel not far from the Institute. He’d looked it up on the net and his boss approved the reservation. John was amazed they’d allowed – trusted – him to do this. Not that he’d given them any reason not to. But he was surprised they would put him up in a hotel, a worker of his piss-on status. When his boss had first mentioned the need for hand-delivery, John saw himself coming into the city at four in the morning to pick up the car and still have time to drive the proposals down before 9 a.m. It would not have shocked him, had this been expected.
Nobody gets to where they’re going in D.C. easily if they don’t have long-term familiarity with its absurd patchwork of streets, signs, arrows, lights. John was lost for about twenty-five minutes, which he didn’t think was too bad. Then he couldn’t find the parking garage (he finally did, around the back, with a poorly marked entrance) and when he did it was fuller than he’d anticipated, but he found a place. For a few moments he hesitated, but decided to carry the cardboard box with him up to his room, just to be on the safe side. I am not moving that car until tomorrow morning, he swore.
In spite of the long day, John was enjoying himself now. He liked hotels, even bad ones, but this one was probably nicer than any he had stayed in before. Spending a night in another city was always intriguing. The faces of strangers glided past him, and his imagination sparked into life. Who were they, why were they here? How many meetings would take place in the first few hours of the next business day, how much anticipation would there be roaming the corridors of this hotel late at night? Whose career was at a critical moment? Who could not sleep? What did that feel like? John tried to imagine himself in ten years, in another hotel, waiting for an appointment, checking in with a wife, children, his children ….. it thinned out as it came, this vision, and vanished into the next moment altogether. He could not see it; he’d forced himself to have a notion of a future that, for the present, he had no reason to expect would ever come to pass.
The room was ready. He entered the cool sanctuary, two double beds, a table and chairs, even a miniscule kitchen. He had never stayed in a business suite before, and it amused him that he would do so now. Good thing this kitchen is here, he thought. He could barely manage a bowl of cereal.
Speaking of, John was thinking, I’m hungry. And I can’t just sit here in the room for the next four to five hours. The digital alarm clock on the stand between the two pristinely arranged paisley-patterned double beds told him it was 6:35 p.m. Sunlight fought to penetrate through the crack in the heavy maroon curtains, trying to remind the room’s occupant that it was still late summer, the day was not over, he could go out and see things if he had eyes to see them, or guts to look. He briefly toyed with the idea of calling his boss’ cell phone to check in, but dismissed it. I’m here, he thought. That’s good enough.
One thing he knew for sure, he did not want to drive around tonight. He wanted to keep his parking space and did not want to deal with navigation any more than he had to the next morning. He’d get up early and find the Institute ahead of time. He didn’t care if he had to wait in a parking lot – he would avoid the rush hour as any sane person would if they had a choice. He had a big book, Halldor Laxness’ World Light, he’d be fine to wait it out.
Within a few minutes, cardboard box with the completed proposals secure on the table in his room, car locked and silent underground, John Francis departed the hotel on foot. The day had elongated into a beautiful and fragrant evening. The sidewalks and streets were nearly vacant; who worked on Sunday night in government? Wherever he was in Washington, it was not near a lot of residences. Not that this bothered John. Walking around and between the stone gray buildings, he felt a strange sense of national vulnerability, as if the mechanics of the State were all dormant, the ones on the night shift all asleep at their posts. No one seemed to be around.
He purchased a Washington Post at a corner from one of those snapping-turtle vending machines that always made a deadly serious attempt to eat your arm while managing to retain the paper you’d paid for. Luckily, he won that battle. It cost him six quarters for the massive Sunday edition, but he’d been prepared. The only place he could find that was open and serving something was a Xando Cosi coffeeshop three blocks from the hotel, so he went in, paid $15 for a tandoori chicken sandwich and a miniscule Coke, and ate his meal in comfortable silence, perusing the paper at his leisure. Two men next to him were chatting rather openly about legal options for one of them having been fired from his job. Plenty of grounds, substantial damages, one man said. No, not my line of expertise, I don’t want to short-change you, but I have a colleague who can recommend a lawyer, a woman, a real hell-hound. Believe me, that’s the best kind.
John chuckled. How much did the guy have to shell out just to talk to his guy at Xando, he wondered.
It wasn’t until he walked out onto the sidewalk again into lingering twilight, leaving his paper behind absent-mindedly, that John began to feel strange, a bit unsettled. Perhaps it was the silence that started him thinking, wondering. What am I doing here? he asked himself. Your job, came the answer. Yeah but what’s the point? Who does stuff like this? Only the lowest man on the pole. But nobody knows I’m here, no one cares, except for my employers, my boss occupied with his children, Ed chillin’ at the shore. Grimm will get it done. They’d better hope so. Because if they win the contract it will mean hundreds of millions for the firm. And I will get precisely nothing out of that. Ed, however, could spend extra weeks on the beach in the future. What bullshit, John Francis thought. He didn’t want spend any more time thinking about it.


Duke Altum said...

Mutt, keep the sections of the story coming! Thousands are sitting on the edges of seats, waiting for the next installment... seriously, it's interesting to read one of your stories in serial form. Each section seems to have a mood of its own. This particular one (part III) had sort of an empty, hollow, "what's the point" kind of vibe to it... not just with the guy's absurd dead-end job, but also with the emptiness of the city and the lack of him running into anyone at the hotel, despite the evidence of other people being there. Even the coffee shop seemed sort of quiet and deserted (although it doesn't explicitly say that, I don't think). You can sense a quiet, rising frustration beginning a slow simmer in J.F. Grimm, and its going to come out one way or another, I suspect... going to be interesting to read how it does come out.

P.S. Noted the Halldor Laxness cameo in there, by the way... nice!!!

Mutt Ploughman said...

Duke, I appreciate your reading the story so far. As for the thousands waiting for the next installment, that will be up tonight most likely. And it looks like there will be 8 part altogether, so we're almost halfway there. It's been fun to write the story and post it 'serially', not sure if anyone other than me is getting anything out of it, but I'll keep it coming. Yes, things are percolating inside John Francis - is he going to do anything about it? We'll see.