Copyright© 2010 by Autumn Writer
Tom spent a sleepless night, brooding on the lost partnership and, more important, on Bentley's call to Kathy. It was gnawing at him as he drove to work. A better rest might have helped him to put aside his anger. As he thought about his years with Bentley he realized that he should not have been surprised.
After he hung up his coat Tom went to Partners' Row to find Charles Bentley. He was returning with his morning coffee and followed him into his office.
"You called Kathy after we spoke yesterday," Tom said.
"Yes, Tom. I didn't mind doing it. It was the least I could do in the circumstances."
"Excuse me, Charles, but..." Tom countered.
Bentley interrupted him. "Tom—Tom. 'Charles' is fine behind closed doors. With the door open it has to be 'Mr. Bentley'. You understand."
"Okay, Mr. Bentley," Tom corrected, "I know that you meant well, but you caused a lot of trouble for me. I wanted to tell Kathy myself in my own way."
"I was only trying to help, Tom."
Tom's first impulse was to defer to Bentley, as he had done countless times, with a weak 'yes sir'. Circumstances had changed; there was little to gain by holding back.
"It didn't help; it made a problem. It's up to me to handle my own family my own way. You didn't have a right to interfere."
Bentley looked back at Tom with his usual, unchanging expression.
"I own the firm that pays your salary, Tom. That means that I had every right to make whatever call I so choose. You were going to tell your wife why we chose Keith over you. I had to head you off."
"I didn't tell her," Tom protested. "How could I? She'd always think it was her fault—that she stood in my way. I couldn't let that happen."
"But, isn't it true?" Bentley asked, his eyebrows arched to make his point.
"Yes," Tom answered. "Wait—no! At least not the way you make it sound. What's wrong with having a family?"
"Absolutely nothing," Bentley answered. "Clients like it. At least they like the idea of it. When we have to split time between their needs and the kids it gets a little sticky. It would look bad for us if the wrong story got out. That's why I had to make that call."
Tom stood looking at Bentley; his mouth open.
"I knew you'd understand, Tom." He paused and the two men looked at one another. "Was there anything else?"
"It wasn't always like this."
Tom poured himself a coffee and went to his desk in the cubicle and sat down. He still had a job to do and it would just pile up if he didn't get at it. It was hard to dig in with the gusto that he used to.
He indulged himself a few minutes to remember back-when, to the time he was a fresh- out-of-school Junior Accountant. His brain was packed full of FASB's and Tax Code and soon, he was sure, the world would find out how a CPA who really knew his stuff could make a big difference. It was Bentley, Morrison, Marino, and Howe in those days, an up-and-coming firm; one that held out promise to an ambitious young man. When he passed the CPA exam he almost expected chevrons for his pinstriped sleeve.
He found that a young bean-counter's job was more about sending out account confirmations and counting boxes of inventory than applying complex accounting dictums. There were times when he wondered if Law School would have been the better choice, but he had a heard a different voice calling—and followed where it led him. In time, he got to reconcile the discrepancies in the Account Confirmations and solve the problems in the Inventory Counts. Later, he would teach others to do so and apply the rules to make them right. Whatever his assignments, he did them well and on time. He never faltered. It hadn't been enough.
Kathy was so good looking back then. To his mind, she still was, if in a matronly way. She was a Librarian with a degree of her own. They met at a fundraiser for the Library. Tom was told to attend, look important and become known. Kathy thought that he had potential, if he was a little pompous. They became an item, and then a happy couple. Kathy knew that CPA's were stable and always in demand. They waited a few years to have children, when Tom was sure that he could afford it and give his family the life they deserved.
"What happened to me? I was once an up-and-comer; now I'm an almost-arrived. I tried my best; I did everything. I should have seen it coming. I can't take it, but I have no choice. I'm trapped."
He shook himself awake, back to the present where the final brush-strokes awaited on the McAllister Financial Statements. When he was done, he might give the Tax Department a hand with their heavy seasonal load. After that, there was the next job to prepare for, and then the next. They were waiting for him, partnership or not. Time had become measured in the audits he performed; chopping his career up into little chunks. He had accepted it because he believed, as he told Kathy the night before. Now, he no longer believed, but still beheld the little chunks.
March turned into April; Easter arrived. On that holiday, Tom and Kathy always hosted Tom's parents for a big dinner after church. First, of course, was the ritual of Jennifer's Easter basket, which she found with little trouble, hidden behind the sofa. As they hid it the night before, Tom and Kathy wondered to each other if this year would be the last one that Jennifer would believe in the Easter Bunny, and how many years would go by until she passed on the secret to Little Hal.
"If I can believe in Charles Bentley for thirteen years, I suppose Jennifer can believe in the Easter Bunny a while longer," he thought as Jennifer inspected the jelly beans and chocolate eggs.
It was the baby's first big holiday, and the first year that Jennifer had a new set of good clothes for Easter. The grandparents were more than pleased. Al Graham was a foreman of a line crew for the utility company with only two years left before retirement. He and Muriel had been married for forty years. Tom was their oldest. There was another son, Greg, who lived in California. They were proud of Tom, with all the letters after his name. They thought Kathy was a real gem, too.
The ham was in the oven; Muriel disappeared with Kathy into the kitchen to feed the baby and make the raisin sauce. Al, always predictable, took out his camera—the better to capture Jennifer in her new clothes while they were still in good condition. Tom poured himself a drink and sank into his easy chair. Actually, it was his second, but no one was counting.
Tom's father finished the photo session and made his way to the kitchen to get a few shots of Kathy and Little Hal. Jennifer followed along to be in on the action. Tom stayed behind in the living room, and while he was alone he freshened up his drink.
"Kathy and Muriel told me that we have to keep Jennifer out here," Al announced when he emerged from the kitchen after a few minutes. He put his camera back in the case, made a drink of his own and settled onto the sofa along side of Tom's chair. Jennifer got out her coloring books and found a private corner on the floor.
"Greg called from California last night," Al said. "He said to say 'hi' to everyone."
"How's he doing?" Tom asked.
"He just changed companies again," Al replied, shaking his head. "Of course, with no family to worry about he can afford to take that chance."
"I know the name of that tune," Tom answered. "What's his new job?"
"You know, he told me, but I'll be darned if I can understand it. It's something to do with computers as usual."
"Software development," Tom reminded his father.
"He told me his new salary. I can't believe the salaries those guys pull down. He could buy my house with a year's pay. He's gonna make..."
"Dad, I don't want to know!" Tom interrupted.
"You're damn right I don't want to know. It's always Greg's salary this and Greg's salary that. The next thing, he'll be asking if I want him to check and see if there are any openings for accountants at the Electric Company."
"Of course, the cost of living out there is sky-high, so it isn't apples to apples," Al mumbled.
"It's okay, Dad. I'm happy for Greg."
"Well, how's everything at your office, Tom," the elder man inquired.
"Busy, as usual, Dad—Tax Season and all. I've got another big audit job starting up next week."
"Daddy said he isn't going to be a partner," Jennifer piped up from her corner. Al looked at Tom in surprise and Tom let out a sigh.
"How did you find that out, Jenny," Tom asked.
"I asked Mommy why she was sad and she told me," the little girl testified.
"What did she mean by that, Tom?"
"There was a partnership opening at the firm and they chose someone else. It was between me and another guy who works there."
"I'm sorry, son. I thought that you said that you'd be the next in line."
"Like I said, Dad, they had to choose between the two of us. They chose another Manager—a guy by the name of Keith Masters. They said that they wanted someone who could go out and pick up new clients."
"You could do that, Tom."
"Probably not as well as Keith," Tom admitted. "It means a lot of social occasions; nights out getting acquainted and being seen. Keith only has himself and his wife. I'm home late too much as it is. They probably made a better choice."
"Are you going to stay with them?" his father asked.
"I don't know right now, Dad. It just happened; we haven't had a chance to think it over."
"Why don't you try another firm?" his father asked.
"It wouldn't make any sense. It would be a sideways move unless I bought into the new firm, and I haven't got the money for that."
"Tom, you know I haven't got much..."
No thanks, Dad. It wouldn't work, anyway. A new firm would expect me to bring clients, too. I'm not in a position to do that."
"What does Kathy want you to do?"
"She doesn't care, as long as I start bringing in more money."
"I could ask at the Company if they need any accountants."
"No thanks, Dad."
"Why not just ask, Tom. You can always say 'no' later."
"Because it's not what I want. I know what I want. I've spent thirteen years working for it. I'm not going to give up now. Why should I have to?"
"Whatever you say, son. I was only trying to help."
"Let's talk about it some other time, Dad," Tom said, and looked away.
"Grandpa, Daddy told me he counts beans for his work," Jennifer informed her grandfather.
Her grandfather laughed and Tom knew that she was still the apple of his eye.
"I might count the beans. Jennifer's the one who spills them."
"All right, you guys, dinner's ready!" Tom's mother called out from the kitchen.
Jennifer hopped and bounced into the dining room, followed by Tom and his father. Tom took his father aside as they approached they sat down at the table.
"Dad, let's enjoy our meal and forget about talking about my job troubles," Tom said.
"It's not fair to your mother for her to be the only one to not know, Tom," his father answered.
"I'll tell her later—after dinner's over," Tom promised. "I just don't want to deal with it right now."
Tom's father shrugged, but didn't answer.
After the grace the table was quiet. The baby was in his room taking a nap. It seemed as though no one knew what to do without a backdrop of baby noises. People were busy eating.
"The raisin sauce is good, as usual, Ma," Tom spoke up to end the silence.
"Kathy made the sauce this time, Tom," his mother confessed.
"I stand corrected," Tom said, and then took a drink of wine from the goblet in front of him. "Very good, Kath."
"Your mother gave me the recipe and showed me how to do it," Kathy replied.
Everyone at the table returned to working at their plates full of food.
"Kathy told me that she's going to plant roses in the back yard when the weather warms up, Al," Muriel said to her husband. Tom's father tried to look interested.
"Daddy made Grandpa promise not to tell Grandma that Daddy won't be a partner," Jennifer announced to the table.
Tom let out an exasperated sigh.
"Thanks, Jenny; I was hoping you'd clear the air about that."
Tom felt his face turning red and the three other adults covered up to hide little snickers.
"I only asked Grandpa to wait until after dinner," Tom corrected the little girl.
"It's all right, Tom," his mother said. "Kathy already told me all about it while we were in the kitchen."
Tom drew a deep breath, to let all present know that he was holding his temper.
"I would prefer to make my own announcements, Kath," Tom pronounced in a monotone voice.
"Sorry," Kathy mumbled as she stared down at her plate.
"It's all right, Tom" his mother consoled. "I'm sorry you were disappointed. We know how much you were working for this."
"I'm sorry I held it back, Ma. I just didn't want to talk about it. I feel like a corpse at my own funeral. I just wanted avoid the subject over dinner. I have nothing to be ashamed of."
"Of course not, dear," his mother answered.
Tom half-expected her to come over and pat him on the head.
"I told him I would ask around at the Electric Company, but he said 'no', as usual," his father chanted.
"We're just disappointed because we were hoping to look for a bigger house," Kathy said.
"Grandpa, why do they make Daddy count beans at his work?" Jennifer asked.
Tom listened to the four other people talk about his job, asking questions that they didn't expected answers to.
"They're talking about me as though I'm not even here. I really am the stiff at my own wake." He listened to them continue to carry on; he sank lower in his chair. "At least we have a lively conversation going at the dinner table."
All of a sudden the group stopped talking about the subject. Tom figured that they had run out of details to parse. He wasn't about to give them more. He polished off his goblet of wine while the others returned to the food on their plates.
He was almost satisfied that his ordeal was over when Kathy turned and looked at him, with that compassionate, motherly look that Tom could barely stand.
"Don't worry, Tom," she said with a benign little smile. "Your ship will come in."
Her saccharine compassion made him want to scream. She didn't give a damn about his dreams. She was just claiming the role of longsuffering wife—a consolation prize for the bigger house that was not to be—or so he reasoned it out to himself. She was chaining him to his desperation, meaning to bind him against lashing back or even reclaiming his independence. The words dangled in mid-consciousness, a proffered exchange of pity for respect. They were just words, but they bit him and he would bite back.
He decided that it was too much to take, and he was convinced he was right in thinking that way. He was grateful for the few extra dinks he'd consumed, because they made it easier to step over that line that lies between civility and self-preservation
"And, what ship would that be," he spat back at the syrupy pronouncement, "the 'Good Ship Lollipop'?"
Kathy appeared stunned for a few seconds. She raised her hands in front of her mouth in a vain attempt to stifle a sob and then another. She rose from the table and stood motionless for a few seconds, looking at her guests. Tom's parents were looking back with droopy eyes, as if in apology for their half-drunk, brutish son.
"I ... I have to check on Little Hal," she stammered. Her eyes were full of water. She about- faced, away from her place at the table, lifted he head so that her face was pointed at the ceiling and walked to the entrance of the dining room and turned back toward her husband.
"Tom, I suppose I deserved that," she whimpered. "I just never thought that you would say it."
She turned and hurried up the stairs.
Tom sat motionless as she disappeared. His first impulse was to run after her, if only to assuage his concerned parents. But, he reminded himself that he was in the right. Besides, his parents were accessories in the whole thing, anyway.
"It's about time someone suffered besides me."
At first, Tom's parents remained seated, saying nothing, their heads turned away from their son. At last, his mother stood.
"Talk to him, Al, while I clear the table," she said. "Come out to the kitchen with me, Jennifer," she called over her shoulder.
There was silence for a about a minute, and then the older man began speaking.
"I can see how bad you feel about losing that partnership," his father said.
"It just came out. Everyone just kept it up and I boiled over."
"I know, Tom. It happens to everyone. Now you've struck back. You don't feel any better, do you?"
"I don't know, Dad. I suppose I don't. I just want to forget it."
But Tom had lied to his father. He did feel better. He'd lashed out at his tormentors—at least one of them. Why was he expected not to do so? And why couldn't he ask them to drop it and have them do so, too? No—what he'd said to he father was false. He felt a lot better. He realized there would be a price to be paid later. At the moment, he didn't care.
"That's not the answer, either. You'll never forget it. You've got to deal with it. That partnership was never yours. You have to look around you and ask yourself 'What's mine?'"
"I suppose so," Tom grunted.
"Tom, I've always been proud that you're my son," the father continued. "Sure, I was proud of all your degrees and certificates, but there's something more important. It's what you've got in here," he explained, poking himself in the gut, "and in here," he concluded, thumping himself on the chest. "I like to think that's the best part of me that I gave you."
"I suppose that's all in the crapper now," Tom grunted.
"Once in a while a man gets off the track. He'd got to be set straight by someone who cares about him. This is one of those times."