Joe Schwartz is a person who is interested in preserving the culture of St. Louis Through literature. I met him at Chance Operations at Duffs in the Central West End. I have started reading his recent book titled The Games Men Play. It is a compilation of short stories, not for the faint of heart set here in St. Louis. I have included a sample. If you would like to check out his book and support local literature follow this link:
The book is also for sale brick&mortar style through APOP on Cherokee and LeftBank Books.
A SEASON WITHOUT RAIN – chapter 1
April 19th, 2001
Jacob hated offices. He had liked them well enough until he had been forced to work in one every day. Shoved together with three other back stabbers called associates, he was glad not to have pursued a career as a lawyer. The paralegal certificate program he had attended was good enough. He knew as much as any kid with a freshly minted Juris Doctrine, but without all the baggage. That included school debt in the hundreds of thousands that made nice guys do shitty things to other nice guys with even more problems. It was all about billable hours and he with the most won in the most significant way; an office. A private office said everything money, cars, a trophy wife, and the right address could not. It told this insulated world of killers how high on the food chain they belonged. Where with hard work and ass kissing their fellow cannibals could possibly rise to one day, that is as long as they were moving up to the next chair in the chain of command. Most were usually exterminated by the perpetually paranoid above them. Unless the title partner followed an attorney’s name, he or she had every right in the world to keep their resume up to date.
This office belonged to Jacob’s accountant. It was a big office, the biggest among the six offices because Bud was the boss. He had been his Grandpa’s accountant and now he was his. What Jacob understood about taxes could be put in a thimble with room for the Pacific Ocean . It was with an unconditional trust he did whatever Bud said.
Bud’s large office was plain, nothing like he first had expected. The walls were all white without a hint of wood anywhere. Carpet was the stock stuff that had no pattern and was so gray as to not have a color. Bud’s desk was nice, but Jacob had seen better. There was something, though, that he hadn’t seen in an office since Regan was elected the first time. An ashtray.
The office reeked of his pipe tobacco. A cheap, aromatic brand called ‘Captain Black’ that was pleasant as air freshener if smelled in passing. Immersed in it, having to breathe the thick odor over and over made Jacob feel a bit sick to his stomach as if sitting to long in a small boat on a windy day. He tried to think of something else, but no matter what he thought it was pointless trying to escape realty sitting in this stinky office with Bud.
“All the forms have Post-Its wherever you need to sign,” Bud said. He lifted the thick manila package and tossed it over the desk to Jacob.
Jacob was impressed by the weight. Found it hard to believe that he had only been in business for five years. Not a complicated business either, but a tiring one all the same.
Bud lit his pipe and puffed until the smoke hid his face. When he blew out the wooden match a hole opened much like someone wiping away fog on a mirror.
“If you need anything further, Bob is your man,” Bud said.
“I like Bob,” Jacob said.
“He’s a good fella. Hell of an accountant. I’ll stay in touch with the firm if he has any questions, but he’s the boss now.”
“You can’t retire, Bud,” Jacob said. “What will they do without you?”
“I don’t know and I don’t care,” Bud said with a smile. His teeth were yellow as ripe bananas. Whenever he laughed his breath smelled like old coffee and shit.
Finished with his pipe, he set it in the clear, round glass ashtray. Matter-of-factly speaking, Bud announced, “I have prostate cancer.”
“Oh, Christ. I’m sorry, Bud.”
“Don’t be. It is operable and I’ll be fine. Besides it is time to retire.”
Bud stood up and extended his right hand to Jacob.
Jacob left the office, said goodbye to Marjorie, the ridiculously thin secretary who insisted on giving him a hug. Then he went through the doors of Wibbersham&Co. for the last time.
Jacob parked his van at a meter. He had put in two quarters, but was doubtful he would need the full hour. This was almost a routine visit to headquarters except for the inter-office envelope that held the little bit of paper work the company needed.
He signed in at the desk and rode the elevator to the third floor. Although he had thrown the newspaper for the last three and a half years, he had never seen anything in this building outside the lobby and the third floor. A maze of cubicles, people he did not know, who were always busy with what he could not imagine. Delivering the paper took zero brains. Jacob couldn’t imagine what crises these people were constantly presented with. Mrs. Smith didn’t get her Target ad on Sunday? Tough shit. Mr. Smith had a question regarding his bill as he had been on vacation and should not have been charged for delivery the eleventh through nineteenth? Give me a fucking break. Jacob was quite glad to know this would be the last time he would ever have to come here. This place where dreams didn’t just go to die but seemingly were bludgeoned to death.
He found John’s office easily enough. John was on the phone, and when he saw Jacob, he gave him the cue with his index finger for one minute. Use to it, Jacob did as he had the handful of times he had been here before and looked at the never changing pictures on the wall. John with three other guys posed in front of a golf cart. John dressed in a tuxedo receiving an award at some fancy dinner. His wife and two kids, people he had never learned the names of, but John had once been kind enough to elaborate that they were old pictures. That he really needed to get some new ones up. Jacob hated them all like he hated John. The ball-buster had done nothing to make his life easy.
When John put the phone down, he kept writing. Finished with whatever oh-so-important piece of paperwork that ten years from now would be meaningless, he came over and gave Jacob a pat on the arm. Never a handshake, always the pat, either on the arm or the back. It was an attempt psychologically to make him feel comfortable, Jacob guessed. It was taking all his strength not to counter with a punch to John’s gut.
“Shall we go find, Frank,” John said.
Out the doorway that had no door, John led the way from his office that was no bigger than a supply closet. They passed five more identical to it on the way to Frank’s master suite. The door was thick and heavy. When John closed it behind them it made a solid sound as it sealed the jamb with wood.
The office had a desk, a couple of comfortable looking wingback chairs, some nice art on the walls, and a round conference table with three chairs on rollers. Before they could sit down, Frank’s secretary knocked gently, and then came in with a tray of coffee and Danishes.
They sat down to the table where Jacob handed over the envelope. Frank removed the contents briefly looking over the receivership papers. After he was sure of Jacob’s fulfillment, he signed his name. Each page had come pre-signed by the newspaper’s CEO. Jacob had seen facsimile signature on dozens of in-house documents, memos of understanding to clarify the company’s position regarding something or another that effected people with real money, but he had never seen his actual signature. It was perfect in every way to the smudgy, thick, Xerox impression he was familiar with.
Frank called for his secretary and she appeared with an empty file folder ready for the papers. She smiled at Jacob and then left.
“Any questions, Jacob?” Frank asked.
Jacob didn’t hate Frank like he did John. Where John was a disheveled prick in every way that could possibly annoy him, Frank was the consummate gentleman. He was older than John, and on a couple of occasions, had corrected him in front of Jacob. The whole thing was an act. These people could not give two-shits if he lived or died. There were ten idiots waiting to replace him and willing to pay for the privilege of doing so.
“Not really,” Jacob said.
In between chews of Danish, John thought to ask, “Did you turn in your route book?”
“Yeah,” Jacob said. He had not been thrilled about doing so, but according to the contract, the newspaper could deduct up to ten grand for the absence of a current route book at the time of sale. Nobody seemed to give a shit when he had not gotten one or had to spend eight hours after making his deliveries driving the route with his wife writing down every goddamn address in the eight-mile territory. Then again, he hadn’t bought from the newspaper directly. He had bought from his lovable old grandpa, the man who had assured him once you had a route your financial troubles were over. A lying son-of-a-bitch if there ever was one.
Frank stood up and John followed as if connected by a short rope. Jacob intentionally sat a moment longer. It made the pricks feel uneasy, worried, them and gave Jacob a minor victory. That is, he liked watching them squirm.
Jacob stood up slowly. Frank held out his hand and Jacob accepted it.
“Good luck,” Frank said. As soon as he let his hand go, the secretary came back in with a new file and he said, “Excuse me, guys,” as he pretended to be busy with something forgotten at his desk. She handed the light, practically empty folder, to Jacob. The document inside was straight forward enough to be considered simple. He signed it vaguely reading the litigious verbiage. Relinquishment of all rights thereby ownership blah, blah, blah, loss of entitlement or redress blah, blah, blah disclosure of proprietary knowledge blah, blah, fucking blah. Un-fucking-believable, Jacob thought as he signed his name and took his envelope. The check inside was much like a paycheck printed electronically on a high quality, all be it ancient, dot-matrix printer. He looked at it for a moment before stuffing it roughly back into the white envelope with a cellophane window that clearly revealed his name and address but astutely hid the amount. He folded it in half and tucked it inside his flannel shirt pocket. A small fortune, $206, 000.18, money already spent. It pissed him off, to have worked so hard, literally every day of the week, and in the end, he had earned less a year delivering newspapers than the average customer service operator did in a third world country.
John picked up another Danish and nodded his head for Jacob to follow him out. Frank looked up from the file his secretary held with Jacob’s freshly written signature and smiled.
Before Frank had the chance, Jacob spoke. “Good luck, yeah, I get it.”
John walked with Jacob back to the elevator. By the time the doors opened, John had shoved the remainder of the pastry in his mouth. With a practiced sincerity reserved for funerals, John gripped him by the arm while he shook his right hand. John’s hand was sticky with sugar and sweat.
“We should do lunch sometime,” John said muffled by the un-swallowed pastry. “Call me.”
Jacob firmed his grip as not to let John pull away.
“Go fuck yourself, John.”
The elevator opened and Jacob inserted himself between a man wearing a suit and a UPS driver with an empty dolly. As the doors closed, Jacob began to laugh at John. A man who had once threatened that if he didn’t re-deliver a paper on Christmas morning to a nutjob that insisted special messages were being inserted inside the op-ed section by the President of the United States specifically for him to read, Jacob’s delivery contract would be revoked. Watching John stand there stunned, unable to respond, impotent to threaten him or his livelihood any longer was priceless.
Jacob signed the back of check and handed it to his banker. Susan had helped him stay alive when others would have let him drown. She had shown him compassion. He wrote a check to cover the loans, subtracted the amount in his ledger, then closed his oversized checkbook with a thump.
Jacob was dizzy. He had written a check for one hundred ten thousand dollars and no cents. He sat while Susan got him a receipt, then sat a little while longer making small talk with her trying not to throw up.
Twenty minutes later he was at another bank. A bank that made it a point to display their opulence with grand marble towers, mahogany desks, and a eagle statue that had been dipped in gold that stood twelve feet tall and rotated slowly on the bank’s roof like a Pagan god.
The banker met him in the lobby. She showed him to her office where she sat behind a desk that was a tribute to organization. Grandpa loved this bank. This is where he and his brother had originally been given a loan to buy the route. Back when this was a two-newspaper town, before Google, Yahoo, and all things Internet. Before there wasn’t any doubt there would always be a need for a newspaper back then. That need, however, wouldn’t ever be as great as it once was. This must have been what it was like for radio when TV ate their lunch.
Jacob wrote a check and handed it over. The banker, a young woman in her thirties whom he found smug and disingenuous, never liked him either. In no time at all he had learned to hate her back. If not for his grandpa’s burning desire to keep his business here, Jacob was convinced they could have gone anywhere else. But grandpa loved the way they fawned over him here, the men always addressing him as mister and the women in their tight fitting business suits laughing as if modest, yet thoroughly entertained by his mildly dirty jokes. The dumb asshole, Jacob thought. He was a sucker. This place was like a strip club. The more money you had the more they liked you.
She left the office with his freshly written check in hand. Jacob presumed she did not want to talk in front of him. Without turning around, he could see her in the mirror-like reflection of a picture. A large framed picture of her and a man an easy fifteen years her senior dressed in formal attire. He remembered the first time that he had come into the office, nervous, trying to make conversation, asking if the man in the photograph was her father. No, she had said, it was her husband.
In the ghost image of the glass he could see the banker on the phone. She held his check in front of her. It was obvious to him that she was reading the routing number into the receiver. Jacob chuckled a little to himself as she hung up the phone. She looked even more pissed off that usual that it had been verified.
“How’s everything?” Jacob asked.
The banker sat at her desk, pulled open a desk drawer, and removed a stamp. She struck the face of the check with a mark then placed it in a file marked with his grandpa’s name.
“Everything seems to be in order,” she said.
“Yes, Mr. Miller,” she said. “Have a nice day.”
“No waffle maker or a gym bag? There’s a shitload of them out front.”
“No Mr. Miller. Those items are gifts for club members.”
“How about a pen or a stress ball or a water bottle? My grandpa has got dozens of those things.”
“Your grandfather is a valued customer of this bank.”
“Oh,” Jacob said, “I see.”
“If there is anything further Mr. Miller, we will contact you.”
The banker stood, her hands clasped. If his grandpa were here she would have been fetching coffee and cookies. It was funny, Jacob thought, all that time in college, the late nights studying, the enormous debt all just to get a job as a glorified waitress.
Jacob stood up. In her heels, she was as tall as him.
“Maybe I should open an account here.”
“Maybe you should. I’m sure that any of the tellers would be glad to assist your banking needs.”
“Have a nice day.”
“I have a meeting I need to attend. So if there is nothing further—”
“Have a nice day,” Jacob said. “Jesus Christ, lady. I get it.”
Jacob walked out of her see-through glass office. He had wanted to scream at her, tear up the check, demand to see the bank president. All that crazy shit people felt entitled to do when treated with disdain. The modern rule of business was the customer was never right unless they went ape shit in public, then give them whatever they wanted. But the problem, Jacob realized as he walked out of the bank to his van, is that he didn’t want a damn thing.
It was lunchtime by the time Jacob finally meandered home. This would be the first night in years he would not have to jump out of bed at one in the morning. He hadn’t expected to see Barbie’s car. She had a doctors appointment, then planned to go see her mother.
He opened the door without using his key. Typical, Jacob thought, as he crossed the threshold ready to give his wife the old rapist/burglar/deranged escaped convict speech. Before he had the chance she bounced into his arms and laid a kiss on him to be envied by men coming home from a war.
“Guess what?” she asked.
Jacob knew. He knew what she had to say before she said it. As he held her he wanted to choke her, to put his hands around her throat and strangle the life from her body. Of all the goddamn terrible things!
“What?” Jacob said. His voice sounded like it was coming from far away, like at the bottom of a well that was quickly filling with water. Not enough to instantly drown him, but right up to his chest. A well too narrow to be able to sit down in and happily die, damned to splash about, as his torturer filled this hole one-cup at a time.
“I’m pregnant,” Barbie said as she wrapped her arms around his neck.
In his bank account Jacob had six thousand left. This was reserved for the taxes he expected to owe. If he was lucky there might be enough left over to get them the new washer they desperately needed. There certainly wasn’t enough to live on for long. At least Barbie had a job. More importantly she had health insurance.
Barbie kissed Jacob’s face a dozen times, charming chicken pecks, until his face was wet as hers. Without explaining herself, she let her husband go and dialed the phone.
As she excitedly jabbered to her mother, then her grandmother, then her aunts, and anybody who was foolish enough to answer their phone, Jacob went downstairs to the basement. Through the floorboards, as he lifted weights and smoked weed, he could hear his wife excitedly repeat the same conversation over and over and over again.