Authors: Vin Packer
Somehow He’d Ended Up with Someone Else’s Coat
… and that act could end Robert Bowser’s life before it started. His hand trembled as he answered the phone. “Mr. Bowser?” “Yes.”
“Mr. Bowser, my name is Harvey Plangman.” “Yes, Mr. Plangman. I have your wallet, and jacket, too, I believe.” “And I have yours.”
“Why don’t you drive over here? I could offer you a drink and we could reclaim our things.”
“Mr. Bowser, were you planning on going to Brazil?”
Was this really how the world ended?
“You don’t have anything to be afraid of, Mr. Bowser.” “I’d better come there.”
“Yes, I think it would be better if you came here. You’ll know who I am all right, Mr. Bowser. I’m wearing your coat….”
a division of F+W Media, Inc.
For Ernest Leogrande
is Mother Franklin?” Wilford Clary asked. “Oh, fine! Just fine!”
The truth, of course, was that Robert Bowser’s mother-in-law was embarrassing and unbearable. He remembered last evening on the patio, before dinner. She had had her usual one-too-many cocktails. “During your conference tomorrow, Robert,” she had cackled, “mention me to Wilfred Clary! You just tell him I’m still able to cut me a rug or two, and if
I’ll be nice to
Her tone of voice suggested several shades of meaning, and she wagged a sly, old wizened finger at Robert Bowser’s nose. Since her seventy-seventh birthday, Margaret’s mother seemed to go downhill in every direction. God knows her doctors’ bills were bad enough — the rest was unbelievable. After decades of teetotaling, purse-lipped Victorianism, she had adopted a liking for gin and a coquettish personality. Along with this, an outdated slang and an unshakable conviction that she was “cute.” Whenever Margaret and Robert entertained, Mother Franklin plunked herself down in the center of things, flirting with the men and warning the women that wine wasn’t the only thing that aged well.
“A grand woman!” said Wilfred Clary. “A grand old woman!”
“Yes, indeed.” Last year she had been $4,202 worth of grand old woman, in doctors’ bills alone. “Still enjoys a martini or two every evening?” “Oh my, yes.”
“Ha-ha! Yes, yes, a grand old woman! And Margaret’s a grand young woman, Robert! You ought to be very thankful to have two grand women to watch out for you.”
“Oh, I am,” Robert said, thinking how glad he was that it was over now; he was free of them. It had been decided for him.
“Ha! Ha! Still enjoys a martini or two every evening! Ha-Haw! Well, well, I guess we’re all settled with our business, Robert.” He took Robert’s hand in a firm grasp. “It’s up to
now. On your say-so, Cranston Biscuit Corporation will or will not become an acquisition of Baker Oats.”
“Subject, of course,” Robert said dully, “to approval by Cranston stockholders and to a favorable ruling by the Internal Revenue Service on the tax status of the transaction.”
Those two things would stall matters — but only as far as Baker Oats was concerned. For Robert Bowser, the boil was finally at a head. He had already written Margaret a letter. It was in the jacket of the suit he was wearing — a full confession, along with a bland announcement that he was leaving the country and — it followed, didn’t it? — leaving Margaret as well.
“Yes, yes, of course,” Clary sighed. “Subject to all those conditions. You were always one for accuracy, Robert.”
time, Robert thought, and not that other time. Years ago there had been another slip, only dear Mother Franklin had come to the rescue. There was no chance of that happening again. Now that Margaret’s mother was living with them, she would not even pay for her shoelaces. “Buy me an ice cream out of my will money,” she would whine; or, “Who wants to take me to the movies with my will money?” Her favorite lead-in to conversation was: “When I’m dead and you two are rich as a result …"
Wilfred Clary said, “That’s one reason I wanted
to have the directorship in Baker Oats. I trust your judgment in this matter, Robert. I know that in the past I’ve been rather cautious about trusting anyone’s judgment but my own, but now … well, I’m getting old. There weren’t all these mergers in my day.”
The old man eased into his leather swivel chair, in front of his time-blackened mahogany desk. The office was dominated by a huge safe to the right of his desk. The doors of the safe were black enamel, ornamented with a much-varnished landscape which was yellowed with age. In gold Spencerian script at the safe’s top was lettered KING & CLARY, INVESTMENTS. King had been dead for years when Robert joined the firm. Most of the firm’s business was concentrated on the investment of Wilfred Clary’s money. King & Clary supplied financing for various companies which Wilfred Clary controlled in part. Acting as a silent partner, the investment company exercised a wide-ranging influence on those companies’ management.
At forty-two, Robert Bowser was treasurer. His post had facilitated his embezzlement of $100,043.77 over a five-year period. Of that amount only $25,000 remained. Given a month or two, Robert could have quadrupled that sum, then doubled that in three months more, just as he had been juggling sums for the past five years — waiting for the coup that would make him both debt-free and rich. But it was all over now; the bubble had burst. He had miscalculated. Since King & Clary’s original investment in Cranston (Robert had greatly exaggerated the amount, unbeknownst to either party, then had invested the difference at a good profit), Baker had seemed aloof from any suggestion of merger. Robert had a free hand with the manipulation of King & Clary’s share of Cranston stock. There was no reason to anticipate a necessity for substantiation of recorded paper gains. It was impossible now to undo the damage in time to conceal the fraud. He had taken too many liberties with the account. If he were to keep his appointment in Winston-Salem on Tuesday, he would be found out before the day was over.
• • •
Clary was shuffling papers, and mumbling at his desk. Once Clary said a session was at an end, and they shook hands, Clary always insisted on reiterating everything for an additional ten or fifteen minutes.
Behind Clary’s desk, on the ledge of the Southworth Building’s twentieth floor, was a window washer. He was a man not much younger than Robert. There was a cigarette dangling from his lips, and he wore an old red-and-black checkered cap, the sort hunters wear. Pinned to his light blue work shirt was a huge round button. As he moved from one window to the next, while he slipped the safety belt to new notches, for an infinitesimal space of time the white belt whipped free at one end, dangled … an inch of risk before the man secured it.
Robert was fascinated. He moved closer to Clary’s desk, so he could read the printing on the man’s button.
“… and they closed yesterday at 127¼, up 1? for the day,” Clary was murmuring to himself, “while Baker closed at 199?, down …"
Now Robert could see the words on the window-washer’s button: KISS ME OR I’LL FALL FOR YOU.
• • •
Clary went on with the soliloquy of dry statistics. Robert felt as though he and Clary were figures in a dream, real only as long as the window washer watched them. If the window washer were to fall, even if he were to shut his eyes a second, Wilfred Clary’s office would not exist. It was the window washer’s world which was real, not Clary’s and Robert’s.
It was an idle, fuzzy daydream. If Robert had been concentrating seriously on his thoughts, it would be a familiar one as well. Many times during Robert Bowser’s life it seemed as though nothing were happening to him, nor to the people he knew. Things were happening to people he read about in the newspapers or people he saw for a fraction of a second — here, there — faces in the crowd. A face distorted with anger — a face lit up with wild, uncontrolled laughter. A face of fear (he had seen a woman thrown to the street by a car, once, dragged a few feet — seen her eyes wild with fear). And once — he had never forgotten this face, the face of a man looking at a woman while they stood in a doorway on a New York street, late at night — the face of love. He never knew how he realized that it was love; he was sure that he had never seen it before, and certainly no one had ever looked at him that way, nor he at any woman that way — but he saw it, and he felt a strange give inside him, as if something were being taken out of him — and an emptiness.
Just for a few slow seconds then, while Clary kept on shuffling papers and mumbling, Robert closed his eyes. He had never tried doing that before, but he was not the same Robert Bowser, now that the boil was at a head.
With his eyes shut, he saw himself at a counter in a place that looked somewhat the way Robert had imagined Coney Island. There was a boardwalk like the one in Atlantic City. He stood at the counter and pointed to a rack of buttons. Someone beside him was playfully pushing his old hunting cap down over his eyes. The brim knocked the cigarette from between his lips, but in a quick, nimble flip of the wrist, Robert caught it between two fingers and popped it back in his mouth. He pinned the button on himself. People looked at him and grinned. He gave a smart, cocky salute back. Who was he with? A girl? Some friends? There was music playing, the corny kind heard at carnivals and skating rinks. He was very happy. It was so real!
Then he opened his eyes.
“The precise number of their shares outstanding,” Clary was saying, “will depend on the amount of their preferred stock converted and on the …”
Now Clary was putting papers into Robert’s briefcase on the desk. It was the pigskin briefcase Margaret had bought him at Mark Cross for their twenty-first anniversary last month. He had given Margaret a gold bracelet from Cartier. He had more than his share of animal-skin briefcases, just as Margaret had safes full of jewelry. So it went, so it went.
Clary zipped up the briefcase and handed it to Robert.
Through the window, Robert could see just the legs of the window washer, who wore khaki pants and high-top shoes. The pants looked like old army issue. Robert had bought a pair for raking leaves, though he had a gardener and a lawn boy. During the war, Robert had worked at a desk in Washington. His eyesight was very poor; he wore huge glasses which gave him an owlish look, though without them he was handsome.
The laces of one of the window washer’s shoes were bright red. A whim? Indifference? What? Again the white safety belt whipped in the air, dangled, was caught and locked. Risking so much for so little; why?
“I wish you a good trip, Robert. When will you reach Winston-Salem?” Clary asked.
“You’re going by train, of course?”
He always did. It was safer. Suppose there were only a small chance a plane would crash; he had never taken
“Yes, by train.” He would have to chance it now. Varig Airlines flew to Brazil; he had checked that.
“Good! Good! That will give you time to go over everything again before you see the Baker people Tuesday. You know, Robert,” Clary removed his glasses as he did whenever he made a particularly personal remark, “I used to have Baker Oats for breakfast as a boy. I can still smell it cooking right there on the grate every cold winter morning … snow up to the window. I never thought I’d be part of them one day! Baker is a proud name, Robert. Cranston was bound to be swallowed up by someone. They couldn’t do any better than Baker Oats! You’ll be an asset to Baker too, Robert. Oh, I know all these years you may have thought I was holding you back, and maybe I was — maybe I was. But now I’m ready to give you the reins.”
And if Wilfred Clary had said those words five years ago, would it have made a difference?
the difference, Robert Bowser believed. Three-quarters of Robert Bowser believed it, anyway. The other quarter snickered to imagine the kind of coup he might have accomplished, had he held the reins. Billions, was all! Billions!
“Yes, sir,” said Robert Bowser.
“You’ve done all right by Cranston, Robert. I think the Baker people will see your handiwork after this meeting.”
“Oh, I’m absolutely sure of that,” Robert said. Quickly he softened his assent to, “I mean, I
so.” He was going to have to watch himself very closely — resist amusing himself with subtle ironies, and continue to behave as Robert Bowser had always behaved — modestly, compliantly — for just a little while longer.
“Give my regards to Margaret and Mother Franklin, Robert. And have a good trip!”
“Yes, sir, thank you. Goodbye, Mr. Clary.”
Goodbye forever, Mr. Clary.
They shook hands a second time. Robert looked back once more at the window before he left the Southworth Building for the last time. There was a blur of water obscuring the pane, and for just an instant Robert felt a sudden terror of the future — a sudden loss, as though the window washer had in that instant slipped from the ledge. Then a hand reached out and rubbed the water away, leaving the glass clear, shining. The legs of the window washer appeared again on the ledge. Robert felt a new spring to his step as he went out of Clary’s office.
“… but if you have a fourth drink before dinner, then so will John Hark,” Margaret was saying, “and we can kiss the party goodbye.”
The sky was pink; it was around seven p.m. The Lincoln was clocking seventy, just outside Somerville, New Jersey. They were on their way back to New Hope, Pennsylvania. Margaret had driven into New York with Robert on the pretext that she had shopping to do. Robert knew the real reason was that she could not wait to hear whether or not Robert would get a directorship in Baker Oats.
With all the responsibility Clary allowed Robert to have, he gave him very little in the way of title, prestige, or financial reward. It was supposed to be enough, Robert supposed, to be associated with King & Clary. It was not enough at all, and to compensate for this fact, Robert had made up little titles (director of this and that company) for Margaret’s peace of mind. For his own peace of mind, there was the satisfaction that he was in an excellent position to reward himself as he saw fit, paying — so to speak — the director of this and that company out of the till. No other company for which Robert had worked had set him up so well for the coup. His present plight was his own fault, his own stupid miscalculation.
Margaret’s pleasure with the directorship in Baker (his sixth, as far as she knew) was rooted in her belief that after all these directorships, Robert was now due to be King & Clary’s next vice-president.
Beside him that evening in the Lincoln, she was already planning a dinner for their New Hope friends. It was planned for the day after Robert’s return from Winston-Salem. No matter what sort of party she thought of having, John Hark’s name invariably launched her on a long harangue about why he should not be asked. Hark was a drunk. To Margaret he symbolized waste of manpower, disorganization, nonconformity, and loss of control. All four, in whatever degree, made Margaret nervous and irritable. Robert had an idea that in some other way, too, John Hark reminded Margaret of Robert’s own irresponsibility early in their marriage. That was Margaret’s word for it — irresponsibility. It was Robert’s other miscalculation. Robert had gambled $50,000 (a wedding present from Mother Franklin) into zero, on a highly speculative stock switch. The money was to have been for a new home, already under construction at the moment of disaster. Mother Franklin had stepped in and lent them enough to pay off the debt. Dutifully, Robert paid her back piecemeal, to the tune of $25,000. Then one Christmas, Mother Franklin wrote a note saying her gift that year was a cancellation of the remainder of the loan.