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Suit on an Empty Chair

  Short of quitting then and there, Jack could only do as ordered. Fists clenched, every nerve in his body screamed as he walked to the rear of the room and pushed the button to bring up the self-ser¬vice elevator. The elevator rose smoothly and the doors slid open. Jack stepped in without a backward glance at Perham, the son of a bitch.

The doors closed. The interior of the elevator was cool, quiet, and calming. Jack breath¬ed deeply. He straightened his tie and combed the fingers of a hand through his thick brown hair. He pushed the button to take him down.

Down is where I am and this won’t take me any lower. This job is miserable enough without a prick like Perham trying to humiliate me out of it. I wonder if he dishes out the same kind of hell to his kids and his wife, Judith. Hell, I don’t know. They seemed happy that night we went to their house for dinner. Beautiful, good-natured hostess, attractive, well-mannered kids, a small but tastefully decorated, neatly kept house. It really was a nice evening. Suzanne’s still talking about it.

The elevator doors opened to the basement-level floor. Jack knew from having been there that this was not the bank face presented to the public. This was the cellar, the dungeon, the slave quarters, the prison where minutes felt like hours, days like weeks, and weeks an eternity.

The narrow, dimly-lit hallway led to the vault on the left and rooms on the right housing dusty records. Roger and Paul sat at a table in one of the closet-sized rooms where they would spend two or three weeks checking mortgage files. The more challenging task would be to somehow manage to keep out of each other’s way. With a feeling of revulsion, Jack looked at Roger’s sweat-glistened head of short, black, curly, hair and wondered if Roger’s skull was as empty as his face. He disapproved of Roger’s necktie, a dull maroon color with yellowish-white, crisscrossing streaks, but couldn’t fault him for frayed shirt cuffs because his left one was, too.

Damn, why don’t they make shirts that don’t fray on the collars and cuffs? If my wife sew¬ed, she could turn them under and I’d be all set. But she doesn’t and I can’t afford to throw out shirts that are barely worn. I could if I had a million bucks in the bank, but then, I wouldn’t have to wear a shirt to work because I wouldn’t have to work.

The vault door was open. Jack heard above the voices of whomever else was in there the hearty, boisterous voice of the chairman, the pompous, self-important joker who always managed to excuse himself on audit days at five o’clock sharp in one of those unspoken but implied, now that I’ve given you boys such a big hand I guess you can carry on without me, kind of deals. Boy, if I don’t know anything else, I know people, Jack decided. Not that it’s worth a goddamn cent.
There was an empty chair for him in the vault between Clair and the chairman. The reserve cash was stacked on a long narrow table. The job was to first count the bills in each wrapped pack and check the total against the amount printed on the wrapper. The second step was to tally the pack amounts to verify agreement with what was supposed to be there.

Jack squeezed into his seat. The vault was warm, too warm. Clair’s cheap perfume or whatever it was she’d splashed on herself filled his nostrils. Had it not been for the strong scent, her closeness might have been a pleasant dis¬traction. He watched her flip through a pack of ones and wondered if she knew what her finger resembled with the rubber gizmo on it.

The larger denominations had been checked. Jack picked up a pack of ones and glanced at the people across the table.
Monkey see, monkey do. They’re all holding the packs the same way and counting the same end. It wouldn’t take a whole lot of brain power to catch on to the routine and lighten a few packs by slipping out a bill and folding the next one in half. No one would ever know as long as both ends weren’t counted. Cripe, maybe I should ask Corny to leave the table and step out into the hall. What a kick it would be to one-up Perham.

But should I? The cash count is nearly complete. As soon as it is, the herd, excluding the directors, will go up to list the savings account balances on adding machine tapes. The schedule is sacred. I could get blasted for suggest¬ing a recount. The directors will go nuts. Not Perham, though. He hates overlooked angles. He loves improved procedures. He’d keep us here counting bills all night, the prick. Meanwhile, those two little bank guys assigned to hover while we count seem anxious to lock up their precious cash. How they hate our pawing the merchandise, tearing wrappers, creasing bills, and disturbing what they handle so neatly every day. Imagine their relief when it’s handed back to them, the gentle custodians of all this dough. Hell, they don’t look like they’d have the nerve to slip bills in their pockets. Why cause a fuss over nothing? What Perham doesn’t know won’t kill him or me.
“Well, gentlemen and, ah, my dear young lady,” the chairman said, sounding as if about to address the Rotary Club, “I think you can finish without me now.”

Corny smiled and thanked him. Boyer smiled to himself. So did Jack. Clair was pleased that the distinguished man had singled her out.
Mr. Franklin cleared his throat, blew his nose, and stood up with a teeth-clenching screech of the legs of his chair on the tile floor. Jack stopped counting and waited for the annoyance to leave. He half-expected the heavy steel door to clang shut behind the old man, perhaps because the imagined sound of it was already in his ears. Prisoners had it better. They didn’t work nights.

Jack, you’re nuts. What’s better about being in prison? The vacation you get without having any responsibility? Is that what ails you? The responsibility you have? Would you rather be single, free to go anywhere and do anything? Sorry, Jack. You can’t have it both ways. You love Suzanne and there’s the trap. Love keeps a man from going wild…not all men, but enough of them to keep things running -- business, gov¬ernment, the whole works. If you truly love someone, you’re automatically responsible. You work like hell, even if you hate it, to take care of your own.

Jack tossed a pack onto the pile and reached for another. He was dying for a smoke, though when working under pressure, smoking usually made him feel nauseous. His stomach felt empty, but he wasn’t hungry. He seldom was. Eating didn’t interest him. Too damned routine, too many pieces of dry chicken, too many spoonfuls of frozen peas, corn, green beans, lima beans, succotash, any and all of which fueled battles with the kids over cleaning their plates or no dessert, not that dessert was anything special unless you happened to like canned fruit.

He shifted his feet which were uncomfortably hot after a long day in socks and shoes. His ankle ached, the one he sprained as a child, so did his head and the wrist and fingers of his writing hand. Damned if he was completely over his cold, too. Of all weeks for the bank job to start, he wished to beat all hell it hadn’t been this one.

How much do I have to do, anyway? I really put out the work this winter, more than ever, probably three hundred tax returns. Christ, they automatically pick me to handle every joker who wan¬ders in looking for help, most of them with tax records stuffed in every pocket and half still missing. Would Perham touch jobs like those? The hell he would! He wants his jobs to be big and clean. I think he and the other guys are afraid to deal with people on a level where they have to ask questions about personal financial affairs. So, they’re happy to pick over the records of a cold, impersonal corporation, and shove little old ladies over to me. Why? Because I treat people with sympathy and understanding. Which begs the question: Who says I’m not doing my part for the firm? The total billing on my work over the past three-and-a-half months was probably enough to cover my annual salary and leave a damned good profit.

Damn. If I could borrow enough money to open my own office and do nothing but personal tax returns and small account¬ing jobs, I might take more than a few of the Littlefield tax clients with me. I hope some of the clients like me enough to do that because it sure would be great to work in peace and quiet, on my own time, for myself, when I feel like it. Boy, it sure would.

Jack toyed with the prospect until he and the others were finished with the cash.