Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Let's Do Lunch

She was reading a book at the kitchen table when Frank came back.
“Who was it? I didn’t recognize him,” she said, without looking up.
She made a face. “Burt Vogel? That crook? You haven’t heard from him for years, what did he want?”
“Wants me to go in to New York and have lunch with him next Tuesday. He’s got a problem, needs advice.”
“What sort of advice?”
“Didn’t say.”
“You should’ve asked him,” she said, “ and why are you grinning? What’s so damn funny?”
“Well, don’t you think it’s weird? He could hardly wait to see me out the door on my sixty-fifth birthday, and now he wants my advice!”
“And you’re going, I suppose.”
“Sure I am. Why not?”
“Because the man’s a prick, that’s why. You owe him squat.”
She’d been like this for quite a while, with her snarky little put-downs, like a big sister to a kid brother. Lately she’d seemed actually to dislike him, and it made him uneasy. Frank didn’t tell her he was flattered by the invitation. Nor had he ever told her he’d felt ignored and shut out by Vogel, who’d never once called or written since he retired. This trip back to the office might be a chance to re-connect, to make up. Reconcile, was that the right word?
“I want to go if only to see how much the place has changed, meet a few friendly faces maybe, have a free lunch with the Vogel’s new management team.”
She raised one eyebrow in that way she did. “Come on, you know there’s no such thing as a free lunch, remember? You’ve forgotten what the guy’s like, he’s a user. Wants something – want to bet?”
“Well, I’m going anyway.”
She seemed not to have heard him, with her head back in her book. She’d always been a big reader. In the last few months she’d been reading two or three books a week from the library in Ossining. Frank wasn’t much of a reader himself, though before he retired he’d told everyone he couldn’t wait to catch up with his reading. But somehow he’d never got around to it. One day he would.
She snapped her book shut and frowned up at him. “You’ll have to wear a suit and tie, you know. You haven’t done that for yonks, not since your mom’s funeral.”
“They don’t dress up these days,” Frank said, “not unless they’re meeting a client. But you could be right, he has visitors all the time. Maybe I should dress up a bit.”
“I can’t believe this,” she said. “You’ve been out of that place for years. You always told me you hated it . . . couldn’t wait to retire. You know what? I think you’re still scared of that jerk.”

Frank had been in his workshop in the basement when Vogel called, making a love seat for the yard. He spent more and more time down there on projects for the grandchildren, a rocking horse, a see-saw, a couple of doll-houses, a dog kennel. He was most at ease here. He could do what he wanted, when he wanted, the way he wanted. His wife knew nothing about woodwork, so she didn’t criticize him.
He heard her yell down to him after the phone rang. “Someone’s on the phone.”
“Who is it?”
“No idea. Pick it up will you?”   
Vogel’s voice was friendly, almost affectionate. He said something about staffing problems. Could it possibly be that he wanted him to come back? That he’d realized over the years what a contribution his older, more experienced colleague had made – could still make? If that was it, he’d do it like a shot.
She was wrong about his hating the place. Maybe he’d complained sometimes, but over the past few years he’d yearned for the familiar routine, the challenges, the friendships. He’d even enjoyed the daily commute in the train, when he could read the paper or take a nap if he liked. True, he’d be seventy-four in a couple of months, but he had experience, more than the lot of them put together. He’d be back in the swing of it in no time.

When Frank dressed in his room on Tuesday morning his collar was a little tight, and so was the waistband of his pants. But then he put on his red suspenders and the jacket of his charcoal suit and made a rare trip into his wife’s bedroom, standing for a full minute in front of the mirror. He smiled to himself. Not bad, he thought.
Nowadays, on the few occasions when they went to the city they drove, parking the car in a fenced lot, off the West Side Highway in the mid-50s. But today he took the train from Croton-Harmon, fearful there might be some traffic holdup.

He left home a few minutes later than he’d planned, and it wasn’t until he came off Route 9 and was approaching the permit-holders’ lot that it struck him – he didn’t have a permit anymore. Hadn’t done for years. He searched for a meter, and glanced at his watch while he circled the adjacent lot. He had about four minutes, and there were no empty spaces. Soon he was driving farther and farther away from the stairway up to the station until he found a vacant meter on the farthest edge of the park. To pay, he’d have to run a good hundred yards back to the attendant’s hut, and another two hundred yards from there to the steps.
He locked the car, started to jog toward the hut and was already out of breath by the time he reached it. He almost threw the bills at the attendant and turned to lollop down the paved road past the taxi rank toward the station. Panting, with his mouth hanging open, he labored up the steep staircase. At the top he leaned against the window by the ticket booth only to see that the 10:06 was approaching Platform 2. He snatched his ticket from the agent and, wheezing now, stumbled down the other stairway to the platform, steadying himself on the hand-rail, and with a final effort leaped into the car only seconds before the doors closed. He heaved in great gulps of air and flopped back in his seat.
Through the window to his right the Hudson was gliding by. He’d brought the Times from home, but was too tense and unsettled to read. His mind was a blank while he recovered his breath and composure. He gazed out at the passing jumble of sheds and warehouses, rusting, neglected machinery, and then the Tappan Zee Bridge and later, as the line drew farther away from the river, dense trees and sudden glimpses of tidy villages with half-empty streets.
The train stopped only at 125th Street. After that it was minutes before it rumbled through the shadowy underground passages on the last few hundred yards of track outside Grand Central, the lights in the car flashing on and off. People were already standing up, reaching for their coats.
When the train drew into the platform a sudden attack of panic gripped him in the chest. This wasn’t going to work. He couldn’t possibly go back to that place. He’d be an anachronism, a dinosaur. Vogel was nearly thirty years his junior, while most of the staff would be half his age. The daily routines had changed since he was in business. Communications were hugely more electronic. He’d never used a cell phone and knew nothing about things like i-Phones, networking and video conferencing that his young neighbors talked about incessantly. There’d be new buzzwords, unfamiliar jargon. How could he hope to catch up?
But after he walked up the slope through the archway and came out into the airy concourse he felt much better. He gazed up into the renovated galaxy in the ceiling, awed by the transfiguration that had taken place since he was a daily commuter. It was almost like a spiritual awakening. Now, in contrast with the clutter of scaffolding, the ear-shattering machine-gun fire of jackhammers and pneumatic drills, it seemed in a way like some consecrated place, with its polished marble walls and lofty, majestic windows. A cathedral, even.
He was in perfect time. More relaxed now, he emerged from the station onto the wet sidewalk of 42nd Street under a black, overcast sky, heading up to Madison Avenue and down the few blocks to the office. There were new faces behind the security desk in the echoing entrance hall. Once they’d have hailed him by name with a grin of recognition. Today there was only a mumbled request to sign the register.
Alone in the elevator he smoothed his hair and straightened his tie. Things had changed on the 46th floor. Gone was the Regency wallpaper he’d chosen, in harmony with a reproduction Louis XVI reception desk with its matching chairs. The style was now minimalist. A young woman seated behind a cantilevered steel and glass table smiled up at him. A tiny black bud microphone like an astronaut’s seemed to hover near her lips.
She beamed at him. “You’ll be Mr. Bradford, right?”
He nodded. “Yes. I’m seeing Mr. Vogel at eleven.”
“He’s expecting you.”  She touched a button. “Mr. Bradford’s here to see Burt . . .”
The receptionist seemed to be listening for a few seconds and then turned to him.
“He’ll be a minute or two.”
The minute or two passed and the young woman turned to him again and smiled. “I’m afraid Burt’s, like, behind schedule. His assistant axed me if you’d mind waiting for a few moments. Would you like a cup of coffee or something?”
He thanked her, but declined. These days he was careful not to drink much coffee or tea, since he tended to have problems finding a bathroom when he was away from home. He’d be embarrassed if he had to leave the room while he was talking to Burt Vogel.
There were papers and magazines on the coffee table, but he was still too much on edge to read them. Instead, he stood up, hands in pockets, and paced about the reception area.
He looked up at eight spot-lit clocks on the wall, marked New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, London, Buenos Aires, Frankfurt, Hong Kong and Sydney. They weren’t there in his day. It had always been Burt’s ambition to have a network of wholly-owned offices, and it looked as though he was getting there. When Frank retired, the name of the firm had been Focus Public Relations, but now it was Focus Worldwide in ultramarine neon. On another wall were framed awards and, in showcases, Oscar-like trophies, including a cluster of Silver Anvils and some awards he didn’t recognize.
Presently a handsome gray-haired woman in a black pants suit appeared through a glass door and shook his hand, introducing herself as Suzanne, Vogel’s assistant.
“I’m really sorry for the delay, Mr. Bradford. Burt’s been having a bad day, but he’ll be out very soon.”
He sat down again. The clock marked New York said twenty after eleven. The receptionist caught his eye and smiled at him reassuringly, showing faultless, seemingly incandescent teeth.
“What happened to Aleesha Brown?” he asked her.
“Aleesha? Oh, she left way back. She’s had three babies . . . brought them all in a few days ago. Cute kids.”
“So you took her place?”
The young woman laughed.  “No way! There were two other girls after her. I’ve only been here a few months.”
“Like it?” he asked.
She shrugged. “Sure, like it’s a job. Know what I’m saying?”
Frank sat down again, and waited.
What the hell was Vogel up to? A few more minutes passed, and then the glass doors burst open. Burt Vogel stood, his arms raised in greeting.
“Frank Bradford, you old bastard! Good to see ya’!”
Vogel hadn’t changed much. The crew cut, the shifty eyes, the oddly pointy face. No wonder the staff called him ‘the ferret.’ He wore what Frank’s younger neighbors in Westchester would have called casual chic – an open neck under a Polo sweater, tailored chinos and loafers. He bounded forward and grasped Frank firmly by both shoulders, and Frank couldn’t help wondering whether Vogel was about to kiss him.
“Dunno what you’re doin’ to keep in trim, Frankie, but keep doin’ it. You're’ lookin' great! Come on in.”  
They settled in armchairs, facing each other in a corner of Vogel’s office.
“So how’s business?” Frank asked.
“Pretty damn good. Mind you, it’s very different now.”
“Yeah, we, like, changed course a couple of times. No more of that consumer crap. Not much corporate, neither. We’re really into environmental stuff, healthcare and medical these days. A lot of product and issue-oriented public affairs stuff.”
There it was, the jargon. Well, he could cope with that.
“We – that is, you – were moving into hi-tech,” Frank said, “What happened to all that? It was big.”
Did he imagine it, or did Vogel flinch?
“Most of that went down the drain last year. All those freakin’ dot-coms. Yeah, that hit us pretty hard. We had to let quite a few people go. You probably heard about that.”
Frank said no, he hadn’t heard.
“Bad scene,” Vogel said.
Frank wondered when he’d get to the point. But then Vogel changed the subject. “It’s a long time,” he said. “Remind me. How long is it since you retired?”
“Nearly nine years.”
Vogel whistled. “Enjoyin’ it?”
“Most of the time, I guess.”
“What about the rest of the time?”
Frank had decided he wouldn’t tell Vogel he'd give anything to be back at his desk. Not yet, anyway. He’d mind what he said, with no hint of the aimlessness of his life at home, his wife’s abusiveness, his bad back, the prostate thing, the memory lapses.
“Well, I confess I get a little bit restless up there,” he said. “I don’t get quite enough to keep my mind active and, well, I do rather miss the old days at Focus.”
“Don’t think we haven’t missed you too, Frankie,” Vogel said. “They don’t make ‘em like you anymore, old pal.” He paused, leaned forward and patted Frank on the knee. “I’ll be honest, if we have a problem here it’s finding senior people with the skills you brought to the place – energy, creativity, loyalty, integrity. Trouble is, everyone’s been promoted too goddamn fast. It’s the Peter Principle run amok. They’ve no real experience, you see. No precedents to apply to other clients’ problems. What we need is more experienced people.”
“Is that what you wanted to talk about?”
Vogel’s face brightened. “Yeah, you guessed it. I was broodin’ over this at home last week and I had an idea. In fact I nearly called you.”
He was sure of it. Burt Vogel was going to ask him for help. Maybe full-time, or at least as a consultant of some kind. Frank’s tension of the last hour or two had dissolved and given way to a surge of self-assurance.
“Tell me more about your idea.”
Vogel leaned back in his chair. “Ok, listen. I’ll cut the bullshit. Fact is, we’ve lost a whole bunch of good people. A lot of them have done well and moved up the totem pole. Here’s the idea – how about we hatch a plan to win ‘em back?”
“How?” Frank asked.
“Good question. S’pose we had a party,” Vogel said, “in some cool night spot we’d take over for the night. We’d ask the lot of ‘em, knowing the ones who hate our guts wouldn’t turn up anyway.”
“I get it,” Frank said, “you’d finish up with Focus alumni at every level who still had a residual good feeling about us.”
“Right!” Vogel said. “There’ll be a few who are just plain curious, but what the hell? We’ll give ‘em all a great time, lots to eat and drink, disco and stuff. Hey, we could screen some great nostalgic video, too!”
“And then, I guess, you’ll say a few well-chosen words.”
Vogel shook his head. “Nah! They’ll see what we’re up to – I’ll just make it a quickie. The real recruiting bit comes after everyone’s gone home, see? We’ll make our people really work the room, sure. But, a few days after the party’s over we’ll sit round the table and compare notes. Then we can draw up a list of people and approach ‘em one-on-one. Slowly, slowly, catchee monkey. Geddit?”
“Sounds great,” Frank said.  “So what’s the next step?”
Vogel grinned. “Aha! This is where you come in.”
“Yeah. Think about it, old buddy. Who knows more than you about the history of this outfit?”
Wasn’t it a certainty by now? In a minute or two Vogel would invite him to run his recruiting beano. Wasn’t planning and running events one of his specialties? It was worth a few grand. And, as well as that, he’d get a foot back in the door at Focus. Why didn’t Vogel just come out with it and pop the question?
“Ok, Burt, tell me what you want me to do?”
Vogel was talking faster. “You were here for nearly thirty years, and you’re a good judge of character. I bet you could put together a list of workmates as long as your arm,” he said, “and what I’d really like is a list like that, underlining the names of the ones you personally think were hot operators, real pro’s. Will you do that for me?”
Was this all? Just a measly list of names of former employees to ask to a damn party? Couldn’t he have asked for this in a five-minute phone call, instead of dragging him all the way into New York?
He wanted to say ‘No! Stick it, I owe you nothing. Find some other poor stiff you’ve unloaded a few days after his sixty-fifth birthday.’
But he didn’t. He said, “Glad to,” and hated himself for it.
“Jeez, you're a real pal,” Vogel said, “I knew you’d do it!”  Then he added, “When would be a good time of the year to do it?”
“To do what?”
“The party, of course”.
“Let me think about that,” Frank said.
Vogel’s secretary stood in the doorway and caught her boss’s eye.
“What's up, Suze?” Vogel asked.
Suzanne made a barely perceptible hitch of her head that said, ‘may we talk?’
Vogel excused himself and joined her in the doorway. A whispered conversation followed, at the end of which Frank distinctly heard Vogel say "No problem, tell ‘em I'll be there.”
Vogel sat down again.
“Shit! Gotta problem, Frankie . . . client in real trouble . . . wants me right now in his office on Fifth. Some kind of flap at the FDA.”
He patted Frank’s knee again. “I’m real sorry, I hoped we could have a good lunch at Giovanni’s. Just you and me together, so’s we could catch up a bit.”
He snapped his fingers. “Hey, tell you what, let's do lunch some other time. Give Suze a call and she'll fix it up. Ok?”
Vogel was pulling on his raincoat and heading for the door, calling instructions to Suzanne. His mind was already somewhere else. Seconds later he was gone, leaving Frank stunned, standing in the middle of the room.
He didn’t fix the lunch date with Suzanne, who was all over him with apologies. Instead he nodded a friendly enough goodbye and sat down for a minute or two in the reception area, where the pert young woman had gone to lunch and been replaced by someone else. He had to admit it, he’d been a ninny. It was all a big mistake. His wife had been right about Vogel, he was a user and a jerk, and of course Frank had always known that stuff about free lunches.
But what to do now?  Frank weighed his options. The first was to have a bite at Grand Central and go home to face a battery of monologues peppered with sneering questions like ‘well, what did I tell you?’ – or ‘why don’t you listen to me?’ But when the second option slipped into his mind he couldn’t suppress a little chuckle, though the receptionist didn’t seem to notice. He’d play hooky – have a few hours on the loose in Manhattan! There might not be free lunches but there were certainly free afternoons. Hell, he was retired wasn’t he? He’d go to a movie at two o’clock in the afternoon – take in one of the great independent pictures they never showed at their glitzy, plastic MovieMax at home.
Frank opened his newspaper and searched the listings in the Arts section. This was going to be fun! He’d buy himself a damn great bag of popcorn drenched in butter without her nagging him about cholesterol. Why hadn’t he treated himself to a day in the city before, letting his hair down, meeting old pals? A whole new way of life was opening up to him.
Sure, he’d dredge up some names of former colleagues for Vogel’s dumb list. But it would also be a great way to start checking out a list of long lost buddies.
He had his umbrella ready as he pushed through the glass doors onto the Street, but when he stood on the sidewalk he peered up into the afternoon sky.
The clouds were clearing, and the sun was coming out.



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