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"Bullets, Booze and Bastards"

Sample chapter from While the Devil Waits by Jackson Meeks

I didn’t know that I made Mr. Washington so uncomfortable until he told me one afternoon. Up until that point I had never given it much thought. After all, there had never been any reason to think about him or his feelings toward me. He had simply hired me to organize and file paperwork for the Chicker Insurance Company and that’s what I had been doing for nearly six months. In fact, I rarely spoke to Mr. Washington. I didn’t have anything against him. There had just never been anything important enough for us to sit down and talk about.

But one morning while I was finishing filing a load of paid claims in chronological order (by date of service rendered, not date of payment), Mr. Washington entered the records room and sat down next to me on a wooden chair that I keep by my desk. It was the first time I could remember anybody sitting in the chair. Initially, I was a little bit startled because I had been engaged in my work. I hadn’t heard him enter the room and didn’t notice him sitting there, so when I looked up and saw him, I jumped a bit. Then I nodded at him because it seemed like the appropriate thing to do. He didn’t return the gesture. Since I wasn’t sure if I was expected to stop working, I continued to quickly file papers while he sat there in silence and watched me. Mr. Washington was a big man—he must have weighed 230 pounds—and his gut hung down over his belt. He had a puffy gray mustache and hair to match. His eyes also seemed to be gray, but they might have been blue—I have never been a good judge of such things.

As he sat there, I could hear the wooden chair creaking. I was worried that the old chair might break and was prepared to say something, but I stopped myself. After all, there was no point in bothering him if he was comfortable in the chair. I also noticed that he was breathing quite loudly. Perhaps he was out of breath from walking, or he might have simply been a heavy breather. I couldn’t be certain one way or the other. It didn’t really matter. I was still focused on his breathing, however, when I realized that he was speaking to me and must have been talking for some time. I had missed most of what he had said. I was forced to ask him if he could start over again. He eyed me for a moment then began talking in a raspy voice. “There have been some complaints around the office about you,” he said quickly.

Since I wasn’t sure how to respond, I simply nodded and said, “I see.” Then I felt embarrassed because I didn’t have anything else to say. I think Mr. Washington was expecting something more from me. After thinking it over for a few moments, I asked him if it would be possible for him to tell me which employees were complaining about me. That way I could talk to them and try to resolve any problems that may have arisen without my knowing about them. I did not want there to be any hostility around the office because of something I was doing and was unaware of.

He paused before saying, “I’m sorry, these complaints were made in confidentiality. It would be unfair to the people who made them to reveal their names.” At first I was going to protest, but then I realized he was right. After all, if it had been me complaining about someone else, I certainly wouldn’t want my name to be revealed.

After that he didn’t say anything for some time and I thought our conversation was over. I began to file again. I didn’t want to fall behind in my work. But as soon as I had looked away Mr. Washington started to speak again.

“I should also tell you that I have my own reservations about you,” he said slowly. “Frankly, you make me a little uncomfortable.”

As soon as he finished saying that I almost laughed aloud and was going to tell him that there had been other people in the past who had said the same thing about me. But I decided that he wouldn’t necessarily be interested.

“I want to make a request that you should think about,” he said, his gray or blue eyes narrowing. “I think it might be a reasonable idea for you to resign from your position. It would make things easier for both you and me, not to mention the other employees who are having difficulties with you. Of course, I could always terminate you. But it would be very tedious and time consuming for me. You see, there is just an abundance of paperwork that must be filed when an employee is terminated. It is one of the many difficulties of my position. But I think that if you resigned, it would be a pleasant solution to all parties involved.”

Since I was caught off guard by his suggestion, I was only able to nod my head. Again I felt embarrassed that I didn’t have anything to say to him. But then I decided that it wasn’t my fault and that my embarrassment was silly. After all, he had been the one who had initiated the conversation, and if I was unable to contribute to it, he certainly had no cause to blame me.

“Of course, it’s not so much your work productivity I’m dissatisfied with,” he said suddenly. “But it’s all the other things. The things that the other employees have spoken to me about. There is no real reason for me to go into detail about all of the individual complaints right now.”

I agreed that there was no point in his listing the complaints, and he looked at me with a peculiar expression. Then his mouth slowly turned upward until it formed a grin. “Of course, if you do resign, I would be happy to give you a letter of recommendation for wherever you may apply next. It would be my way of repaying you for saving me the headache of getting your termination papers in order.”

I told him that I appreciated his confidence in me and his willingness to go out of his way to write a letter of recommendation for me. After all, I wouldn’t have expected him to do such a thing, since we had spoken so rarely in the past.

Then Mr. Washington leaned over to where I was sitting and placed his thick hand on my shoulder. He patted it a few times and said, “Think about what we talked about. Take the night. Get a good night’s sleep. We’ll talk in the morning.”

I promised him that I would consider his suggestion seriously, and he seemed pleased. He then straightened his tie, adjusted his pants, and stood up from the chair. It creaked loudly again as he got up. Slowly, he walked out of the records room and closed the door behind him. The sound of the heavy wooden door closing echoed loudly in the room.

After he left, I didn’t think about Mr. Washington for the rest of the day. I was too focused on my work. I had a lot to do. Although I appreciated Mr. Washington’s taking the time to sit down and tell me his concerns—I’m sure it had been difficult for him to do—it had put me a little behind in my work. I had to work quickly to catch up.

After a couple more hours of the tedious work, I stretched my body and looked around the paper-filled room. Identical-looking brown boxes containing important documents were piled to the ceiling. Papers were seeping out of some of them. Although I normally couldn’t hear any of the goings-on in the rest of the office—the records room was located in the far back corner—I could see under the door and decided that most of the office lights had been turned out. It was dimmer outside. I glanced at my watch, finished writing out a couple of file summaries, turned out the light, and closed the door behind me.

On the way out of the office building I smiled and waved to one of the secretaries, Ms. Banks, but she only made a peculiar expression and turned away. I wondered if the reason for her strange look was because she’d had a fight with her husband the night before (she had once told me that she frequently fought with him), but I didn’t think about it after I walked out the door.

I didn’t go straight home. Instead I stopped by a drugstore on 150th Street and picked up some cold medication for my mother who hadn’t been feeling well for some time. The young woman at the cash register smiled at me and said, “Is that all?” when I placed the medication on the counter. I said yes and explained that the medication wasn’t for me, that it was for my mother, and she smiled again and said that I was very thoughtful. After I left I decided that there had been no need for me to explain whom I was buying the medication for.

As I made my way to the subway, I noticed for the first time how extremely hot it was. It was particularly surprising to me because it was the evening, and the heat in the city usually wasn’t so oppressive at this point in the day. But I could feel the sweat trickling down my chest. I looked up at the sky and used my hand to shield my eyes from the sun. It looked like a bright red ball settling below the worn-out projects and tenement buildings that lined the horizon.

The subway platform was crowded. I found an empty seat on a wooden bench. The bench was facing away from the downtown track, so I had to keep looking over my shoulder to see if the train was coming. Seated next to me was an elderly man. He was wearing a beat-up Stetson hat, and his cane was resting in his lap. As I waited for the train, I could hear him breathing in loud, short gasps. Then I noticed that he was asleep. Drool was dribbling down his chin. When the train arrived I attempted to wake him by shaking his shoulder, but he waved me away, so I let him sleep and I got on by myself.

I was unable to find a seat on the train so I grabbed a hold of a pole and held on as the subway lurched forward. Above my head at the top of the car was an ad for a dermatologist. The advertisement promised better skin immediately and showed a picture of a woman smiling. Next to her, a man in a white doctor’s jacket (I assumed this was the doctor) was also smiling. There was a drawing of a rainbow behind them. I alternated between reading the ad and studying the other passengers’ faces. In particular, I found myself looking at a middle-aged woman who kept falling asleep. Her head would drop, then jerk up, waking her. Eventually, drowsiness won out. Her head fell on the shoulder of a gentleman sitting next to her, and he didn’t say anything or try to wake her up. I’m not sure if he knew her or not. When we came to a halt, I almost forgot it was my stop and had to quickly maneuver my way through several people to get to the subway doors before they closed.

Mother was not in bed when I got home. Instead she was in the kitchen, in her robe, sitting at the table and drinking tea. There was a pile of tissues on the table. It was obvious that she was still not feeling well. Since I didn’t feel much like talking I tried to go straight to my room, but then I heard her coughing loudly and decided that it would be appropriate for me to check up on her. I walked to the kitchen and stood at the doorway. She looked at me, but I don’t think we made eye contact. She seemed to be staring just above my eyes at my forehead. I pulled up a chair to the table and sat there with my hands folded in my lap. The room smelled of sickness, although I couldn’t put my finger on what the particular odor was.

After sitting in silence for some time, I asked her if she was feeling any better. She sighed deeply and began to speak about the hot weather. She had been unable to go outside all day because of the humidity and 90-degree temperature. And now she was feeling a bit stir-crazy. “I really am not myself if I don’t take my afternoon walk,” she said.

I pointed out that the weather had cooled off some and it might be a good time for her to get outside. I even offered to accompany her, but she didn’t seem to hear me. “It just drains me, this weather,” she said shaking her head. “Now if there were only some way for me to get out of New York, get to some place more livable . . .”

Then mother shook her head and began coughing—the fit lasted for 30 seconds or more. I watched her without doing anything but then remembered that I had purchased the cough medicine. I handed it to her and told her she should take it and perhaps it would make her feel better. She looked at the package curiously as if she were uncertain that it was really medicine. Quickly I went to the refrigerator and poured her a drink of water because I knew that she did not like the taste of cough medicine. After waiting for her to finish I told her that I was going to take a nap because I was tired. Once again, she seemed not to hear me and said something else about wanting to leave New York. I could still hear her voice as I walked through the living room to my bedroom.

My room was fairly large for a Manhattan apartment, but it was essentially bare. On the floor was a full-size mattress with just a sheet on it. I liked to be cool when I slept, so I didn’t use a blanket. There was also a bookshelf with only a few books and magazines. On top of it was a black-and-white television with rabbit ears. I didn’t watch it much because I did not particularly enjoy television. My wall was white and was peeling because it hadn’t been painted in some time. The two windows that were opposite the door and faced Amsterdam Avenue did not have curtains. Often I spent time sitting in my chair watching the happenings outside. It was something to keep my brain occupied. This evening, however, I chose instead to lie on my bed, every now and then reading a magazine that I had bought the day before. One of the articles dealt with the many job openings available in computer technology. Normally I wouldn’t have been interested in that sort of article, but considering the events of the day I decided it was prudent to read about other opportunities. I read that many people in those positions made one hundred thousand dollars or more, and it was possible to earn sixty thousand dollars just to start. In the story there were pictures of young people with big smiles sitting next to several small computers. I wondered what kind of education I would have to have in order to get a job in the field. Then I closed the magazine and decided I would think about it another time.

We ate a late dinner, but mother and I didn’t talk much because I was very hungry. I ate quickly. Dinner was spinach, baked potatoes, and grilled steak with barbecue sauce on the side. The steak had not been cooked enough, but I did not tell mother that. After we had finished eating, mother sat quietly, shaking her head. The kitchen window was open, and the curtain would wave whenever there was a breeze. We sat in silence for some time before I mentioned to mother that my boss had suggested that I resign from my position because of various complaints that had been made about me by other employees. Mother didn’t respond for a moment; then a smile crept on her face and she said that reminded her of when I was just a baby. She proceeded to tell me the story about how my father had lost his job when I was two years old and how they didn’t have enough money to support a family and how eventually she had to go out and find work. They just needed the money. She worked as a phone operator. And she did that for some time, just answering phones and connecting people who needed to be connected. She worked until her husband got a new job and was able to support us. Mother had told me this story several times before, but I didn’t feel that it would be proper or polite to interrupt her. After all, it was certainly an interesting story and she had every right to tell it to me as often as she pleased.

The following morning I woke up early. Although I did not have to be at work until nine, I was feeling restless so I got out of bed. Mother was not yet awake. I showered, brushed my teeth, and got dressed. Then I sat down for a cup of coffee. I drank it black, even though I usually prefer to have milk in it. We were out of milk. I toasted a piece of bread and covered it with strawberry jelly. I only ate a few bites because I had left the bread in the toaster too long and it was burnt. Before I left, I wrote mother a note explaining that I was running errands before work. I did not want her to worry about where I was.

The insurance office where I worked was located on 123rd Street and Morningside Drive. I knew that if I took public transportation I would arrive before everybody else, so I walked to work. It would take longer. Actually, it ended up taking me nearly an hour because I walked slowly. I wanted to kill some time. At one point I walked into a pharmacy and just looked around without any intention of buying anything. A woman wearing a blue apron asked if she could help me find something, and I told her that I was just browsing.

I reached my office at a quarter until nine. The neighborhood in which the building was located was run down; abandoned buildings and cement lots full of garbage lined the streets. Some of the lots were ringed with barbed wire. Out-of-date billboards hovered over the asphalt. A black man was lying on the sidewalk next to a fenced-off area. I didn’t see him at first because I was looking to the side, and I almost tripped over him. I tried apologizing. He mumbled something but didn’t get up.

The Chicker Insurance office was located in a red brick building. Right next to it was an elementary school, P.S. 124, which looked nearly identical to the business building. They must have been built at the same time. I had to walk past the school to get to the office. Several parents were dropping their children off at school. Yellow buses lined the street, and a crossing guard hurried children across. A little black boy eyed me suspiciously as I walked toward my office and I smiled at him. He didn’t return my friendliness.

I entered the building and was stopped by a security guard. He told me it was necessary for him to see my identification and for me to sign my name. For some reason, I had been stopped nearly every day since I started working. I was going to point that out to him, but then I thought better of it and decided to just show him my identification. I reached for my wallet and signed the register as he looked over my shoulder. Then he spoke to me with a black southern drawl.

“Who all do you need to see today?” he asked.

I explained that I worked on the sixth floor and I didn’t need to see anyone and he looked at me curiously. “Funny I don’t recognize you,” he said but then he waved me past.

Although I am fairly certain that the office building had an elevator somewhere, I had never bothered to find out where it was located. The stairs were at the front of the building and I took them every day. Besides, it was good exercise. The stairwell was gray, although the stairs themselves were black, and my footsteps always echoed loudly when I walked up them. I tried to walk quietly today, but it was no use. Every step I took made that same loud echoing sound.

Since most of the people in the insurance business office didn’t arrive until ten, the area was remarkably quiet when I walked through the glass doors. Only the morning secretary was in the office and she was painting her nails or clipping them; I didn’t get a real good look. I said hello, but she didn’t hear me so I went to the back of the office to where the records room was located and closed the door behind me. Sitting down at my desk I looked over some of the stacks of papers that I had not finished filing yesterday. I tried reading over some of the information on one of the sheets, but it didn’t make any sense to me. It was almost as if it were written in a foreign language. But it didn’t matter. The only information that I needed to understand was the date of service, date of payment, and the client’s name. All of those items were printed in the right-hand corner of the page. I got to work filing.

I don’t know what time Mr. Washington entered the records room. I only know that I had been filing papers for some time. This time he didn’t startle me as he had before because he knocked before entering the room. I didn’t say anything such as “come in” because I wasn’t used to people knocking on the door.

A little half-smile was on his face as he entered. I tried to smile back at him in order to be polite. He sat down next to my desk and picked up one of the stacks of paper that was sitting there and casually began to look through it. I’m not sure exactly what he was hoping to find. Then he put the papers back down on my desk and winked at me.

“Another hot one today,” he said.

I nodded my head in agreement. It was hot outside.

Then he winked at me again—or maybe it was just a twitch, I couldn’t be sure—and asked me if I had thought over what we had talked about yesterday. Since I didn’t want to be dishonest with him, I admitted that I hadn’t. It had just completely slipped my mind. He looked disappointed, but then his eyes brightened up and a sincere smile came to his face. “Well, I want to reiterate that I think it would certainly be in your best interests. To resign, I mean. But if you aren’t willing to do that, then we’ll have to investigate the other options.”

When he said the words “other options,” I noticed that his tone changed. He emphasized those words more. In hindsight I should have asked him exactly what the “other options” were. But I just didn’t think of it at the time. Instead I just sat there at my desk not saying anything for what seemed to be a very long time, while Mr. Washington watched me from his seat, his eyes never leaving my face. Then he began nodding his head very slowly as if he had just figured something important out. He sat there for some time, continuing to nod his head rhythmically. The wooden chair creaked loudly. Then, without another word, he stood up and started to walk toward the door. When he was at the door, he stopped, turned around, and walked back a few steps.

“About the records you filed yesterday,” he said. “You organized them by date of service rendered.”

I nodded my head in agreement because I had in fact organized them by date of service rendered. A grin made its way onto Mr. Washington’s face but then vanished and he shook his head quickly.

“You will have to re-file all of those papers,” he said. “They need to be by order of date of payment. Not by service rendered. This is a request from the payments office on the fifth floor.”

I was going to point out that he himself had been the one who had told me that it was necessary to file the papers in order of service rendered, but I stopped myself. After all, I had never taken the time out to think about how my filing would affect the payments office’s records. It wouldn’t be fair to them to have the papers ordered by date of service rendered. It would be too hard for them to find the payment information that they needed. I felt angry with myself for overlooking this. I told Mr. Washington that I would certainly re-file all of the papers and that I was exceedingly sorry for the inconvenience. He looked at me curiously, turned around, and left the room.

I stayed at the office very late that night. It took me until past eight o’clock to get all of yesterday’s invoices in the correct order. By the time I left the office, the sun had dropped out of sight and had left only a trail of orange, yellow, and red to color the clouds.