Book 2: The Return Home

by Rick Beck

Chapter 13

Following Old Footsteps

Once I'd faced up to Ralphie's memorial, the natural response would have been to go into a tailspin, which is what I did. If I hadn't had Simon and Brit around to slap me out of it, there's no telling what the outcome might have been.

The final month of school was a breeze. I was assured of A's in both drama and speech, because the teacher of each class assured me of it. Mr. Crockett simply needed to recall my John Scope's speech at dress rehearsals. Mr. Elliot was merely thankful I hadn't ruined the entire senior play. I got a B in English because I studied English for the first time. Brit would insist it wasn't English at all. It was American. I'll take it under advisement.

I also got a B in English Literature and Psychology. Mr. McKelvie insisted that repetition might make an impression upon the dullest of minds, but it left no A impression on mine and the B was a gift, because he was soft hearted. What the man had taught me about the human mind and how it works is worth a million bucks in my mind. The B he gave me was a gift of another sort for me.

English Literature, in spite of the sounds of it, taught me of the worlds you could find inside of books. Jack Beach had guided me to many different aspects of the world I'd gone in search of the year before. I'd learned more in my senior year of high school than I'd learned in my entire life, except for the three months I haunted the streets of San Francisco.

When my name was called and I marched across the stage for my diploma, I knew exactly where my mother was sitting by her ferocious clapping. I cringed a little as I approached the somber Mr. Burgess, standing at attention, watching my every step as he had all year. He reached out with the diploma in one hand, reaching with his other hand for a handshake.

"Well Done, Billie Joe Walker Jr. I had my doubts when you first came back to us, but you've made a believer out of me. Come back and see us now and then."

It took me until I was on the bus on the way to my brother's to remember the words Mr. Burgess spoke to me. I'd never been very trusting of adults, but he'd been fair, even when I didn't think he was fair. I probably wouldn't have made it if he hadn't been watching me.

There is something anticlimactic about graduating high school. You have finished the formal education you must have if you want to get a job at Taco Bell or Pizza Hut. It doesn't mean much more than that. To do something with a high school education you needed to have passion, a dream, and find a job you love to do. If you love making pizza you are set for life, but if your dreams reach past rolling burritos for a hungry public, you need to look beyond yourself and your world. Finding that which stimulates you more than anything else usually requires a mentor, some kind of education in whatever it is you want to do, along with some skill and stamina.

Brit won the one race he ran in the State Championships. He'd already received four offers of full or partial scholarships to colleges all over the country. He'd receive four more for a total of eight, but he had already decided on Princeton. They would pay for everything over his four years and he could train to break the four minutes mile and to compete for the 1500 meters, things on his list of things to do.

The week before I got on the bus to Seattle, Simon came over smiling. He handed me a letter of acceptance at Princeton.

"Come on. This is some kind of joke. How could you get into the same school as Brit?"

"My mother graduated from Princeton. She has a… personal relationship with the admissions dean."

"That's why Brit picked Princeton?"

"Uh huh," Simon said, smiling. "You don't think he can do what he does without the man he loves at his side, do you?"

I hugged Simon and kissed him. He was my closest friend in the world. I'd avoided him for years, but when I needed him, he was there for me. I really didn't know anything. What I'd learned was invaluable but I was still stupid. I'd miss my friends and I'd think of them often. I didn't know what I'd do until Carl came back to the States.

I'd written him that I was leaving home and heading for Seattle in June. His new date for leaving Japan was in August, but he was happy I was getting closer to him. It wasn't like we'd been separated for a year. It was like we were only a short way from a reunion. Our letters became more passionate and the phone calls more tearful. We were both counting the days.

My brother worked at a computer software company, RamTech. He'd arranged for me to go to work in their mail room. My job was taking a cart to most of the forty floors, dropping off mail and packages several times a day. It wasn't something I would have thought of but it was way better than being a pizza cutter.

Ms. Mars was sweet and in charge of all the incoming and outgoing correspondence. She explained it all to me the first day. Sitting me down with charts of which departments were on which floor and a diagram of where I went with whatever it was that needed to be delivered. It was usually small envelopes and packages that never weighed more than a few ounces.

By the end of the week I knew RamTech like the back of my hand. I could go from the first floor mailroom to the thirty-eighth floor in four minutes or so, using the stairs for the random mail that came special delivery during the day. I tried to do it faster each time but usually there were two, three, or four stops, and one might have a priority, which kept me from running the stairs. I thought of Brit as I raced the RamTech stairs, and I couldn't think of Brit without thinking of Simon. I missed them both.

It was on Monday of my second week at RamTech before I was sent to floor forty. A key was required to access the fortieth floor via the stairs, and we were not allowed near the executive elevator without prior arrangement. I could take the regular elevator to the thirty-eighth floor, but you had to get out and take the stairs to get to the top two floors. If you weren't delivering mail via the stairs, you didn't have a key, so taking the stairs was futile.

This was a case where ninety-nine percent of RamTech's employees could not get there from anywhere in the building. Guests and employees allowed on the thirty-ninth and fortieth floors either had a coded key to access the elevator or were given a temporary key by the guard who sat at a desk next to the elevator. I could get authority for the executive elevator when delivering mail, or as Ms. Mars suggested, knowing I liked running the stairs, take the key from her desk and let myself onto the executive floors.

"Once the secretaries know you, you'll have no problem," Ms. Mars said, and then she called ahead to let them know I was coming, even after they knew who I was.

Anytime mail came for those two floors it was special delivery of one kind or another. Ms. Mars would call ahead to announce I'd be popping out the door on one of the two floors in this many minutes. Once the secretaries got used to me, they'd call back to Ms. Mars with my time. She kept a chart to encourage me, but the first time it was a little weird. I couldn't resist running the stairs, and adding the two flights to the fortieth floor took a bit more out of me than usual. Maybe the air was thinner up there.

I fiddled with the key and fell forward onto thickly padded carpet. I was looking straight out at Puget Sound. I located Pike's Market and the Ferry docks with no trouble.

What a view!

"Yes, sir, can I help you," the young pretty woman asked from behind her big desk with the portrait of the boss keeping watch over her.

The carpet was deep brown and the walls were paneled in shinny expensive-looking wood. There were pictures on the wall facing the windows, mostly of men, some of places with sailboats and something like a yacht club.

"I have this for Mr. McMichael," I said, setting it on her desk.

"Mr. McMichael, the delivery is here. Go on in," she said, hanging up the phone.

"Go in?"

"Yes, he often sends a reply on Monday morning. He'll want you to wait."

"Oh," I said, quickly tucking my shirt into my pants and trying to make my appearance neat for the boss. I knocked on the thick wooden door.

"Go in," she insisted.

I turned the handle and let myself into the office. It was entirely different from the outer office. It was smaller although the windows gave me the same view. The well dressed man wasn't all that old. He was writing something and paying me no mind. The desk was huge. There were bookshelves with leather bound books off to one side. I stood at semi-attention, waiting for him to call me forward. He continued what he was doing until he was satisfied. When he looked up at me, he seemed to be in no particular hurry, and then he spoke.

"Well, bring it here. My arms aren't that long," he said in what could only be described as an impatient voice.

I moved swiftly to the front of his desk, holding the envelope out for him. He fumbled with it as I stood there with no particular purpose. The secretary said there would be a reply and until he dismissed me, I was going to wait. I felt odd and out of place but I was out of place.

"You're Walker's brother from Wisconsin?"

"Minnesota," I said softly, impressed he knew anything about the new mail boy. "Maybe he knew John well enough to know where he came from. John didn't mention any knowledge of the boss beyond the noncommittal, he's cool.

"Yes, the one with the lakes. Do you fish?"

"Not since I was younger," I said, remembering I had gone with my father and brother but I was too young to remember the details and my father was so impatient, I'd spent most of my time trying my best not to do anything wrong.

"No, young men these days don't know the joy of fishing, solitude, patience. It's a world in a hurry out there. Too much of a hurry if you ask me," he said, finally getting the envelope open at one end.

He dumped the contents of the envelope onto his desk. It was checks, cash, and notes on a lot of single sheets of paper. It was a lot of money. I'm sure my eyes opened wide.

"I'll be a minute. Enjoy the view. Pick out a book and entertain yourself. I'll need to send a reply once I've confirmed their figures."

I was not pleased to know what was in the envelope. All kinds of thoughts ran through my mind. Who was this guy? Envelopes full of money and checks? I didn't like the feel of it and I'm sure it showed, but I'm not sure it wasn't supposed to show.

Why wouldn't the secretary take the envelope to her boss and have me wait at her desk? She'd bring me back the note to take to the mailroom. That would have been expected. Watching what came out of that envelope wasn't.

Once I stopped looking out of the window I looked at the books that were off the shelves and laying one on top of the other at the corner of the bookshelf a couple of feet from his desk where the windows stopped. Picking up the first book, I was blown away. It was the Great Gatsby.

The feel of the leather took my mind off of the money in the envelope. What a fine book, I thought. The library books I read were mostly worn and came inside of plastic covers. The paper was thick and unimpressive, but they were printed to be read and to last. This was printed to be enjoyed. I felt the leather carefully, reading the markings etched into the dark leather in golden letters.

It gave another dimension to the idea of a work of art. I'd never thought that the feel of a book could make it different to read, but feeling that book, I knew it was true. There was a lot I didn't know and more to learn.

"That's an original," Mr. McMichael said, standing up and coming the few steps to his bookcase. "Go ahead. Open it. It's signed by Fitzgerald on the title page."

I turned pages until I found the author's name written in bold ink, F. Scott Fitzgerald. I made sure I would recognize a title page the next time I saw one.

"Wow!" I exclaimed without thinking about hiding my enthusiasm.

"That was one of a few special edition copies he signed. The book wasn't financially successful and hardly made a ripple in the mid-twenties literary world. The critics were particularly hard on Fitzgerald."

"I loved it," I said amazed. "It was full of life and people who weren't afraid to live."

"Oh, it's the defining novel of the era. What a difference a few decades can make," he said. "Time makes all the difference."

"Yes, sir," I said, putting it precisely back where I got it.

"You're wondering about the envelope?"

"No, sir. Yes, sir."

I knew he'd seen my reaction as he showered out the money onto his desk.

"Best not to lie. I was watching your face," he said.

"You were?" I asked with the sound of confusion.

"You've got to know whose working for you, Mr. Walker. This envelope often comes on Monday mornings. Maybe not this one but one like it. I need to know I can trust the hands it's put into, even for such a short trip up the stairs."

"I'm uncomfortable knowing I'm carrying that. I'm not qualified to be handling that kind of money," I explained from my knowledge of the world as I knew it.

"You can read what I wrote," he said, leaning back from where he sat on the corner of his desk to reach the note he'd jotted out to be taken back with me.

"I don't feel comfortable doing that either," I confessed.

"Do it as a favor for your boss," he said with the insistence obvious. "Read it out loud."

"Prentice, the cash, checks, and pledges have arrived and I'll provide the Mercer Island Ecology Foundation with my official figures. It was a fine luncheon and this will go a long way to continuing the preservation efforts of the residence and visitors who enjoy the Greater Northwest Ecology efforts. Extend my thanks to all involved. Dan," I said, handing back the note.

"Feel better, Mr. Walker? It's all quite respectable."

"Yes, sir, but I don't know why you want your mail delivery boy to know your business."

"Does it worry you handling that kind of money?"

"Yes, sir, that's putting it mildly."

"Good. Never stop on your way here with the envelope on Mondays. It will be the same as this one each time. It's hand carried here and besides Ms. Mars, you are the only other person to touch it. I'm confident that knowing its contents is far better than wondering about it. You know why you can't stop on the way here with it. It is to be handled with the utmost care."

"Yes, sir."

"Take this to Ms. Mars and she'll see it's delivered. Thank you, Mr. Walker. I'll look forward to seeing you again," he said, handing me the envelope after licking the flap and rubbing the bottom of his palm across it several times.

I nodded at the secretary and made my exit, not running the stairs, walking them this time. I handed the envelope to Ms. Mars as soon as I returned to the mailroom. She could see my mind was elsewhere.

"How'd you like our boss?"

"He's okay," I said.

It's the best I could do. Having only been there a week, I wasn't ready to make a judgment about the big boss. I doubted I'd be called on to give my opinion on his behalf. The following Monday came and went without any envelopes needing to be delivered to the executives suites. I made my rounds with the four-wheeled cart set up to carry the mail for thirty-eight floors of offices.

Ms. Mars could load the cart in about fifteen minutes and have it properly organized. The first time I set up my own deliveries it took over an hour and then I got to the fifth floor and there was a third floor delivery I set aside to deliver properly on my way back to the mailroom. There were nine other misplaced envelopes causing me to criss-cross the building to finally get it right. It made for a long day.

Ms. Mars said nothing about the extra half hour it had taken me to deliver the mail once I was setting up the cart. She never said anything that wasn't polite and considerate. On the second day I loaded the cart she offered several suggestions so I made fewer mistakes. There were only five mistakes that day but sooner or later all the mail ended up where it was supposed to go. I was free as a bird except for the final two hours each day when there was absolutely nothing to do but sit in the mailroom and wait for going home time. Only rarely did something come special delivery the last two hours and at most I could waste ten or fifteen minutes if I took a bathroom break on the way back, but I was known for my speed, so I couldn't waste too much time and keep my reputation.

The first time Carl called me in Seattle I could hear the excitement in his voice. For the first time he was certain I would be there waiting for him at SeaTac. I told him about the mysterious envelope and my boss.

"He was testing you," Carl said with confidence.

"What do you mean?"

"You were set up. Ms. Mars was probably in on it."

"No, I don't think she had anything to do with it."

"They were testing you. At least it was something legal. It could have been like The Firm, the John Grisham book."

"I missed that one," I said.

"This guy goes to work for this firm in Memphis and he stumbles onto the files the firm keeps for the mob. The FBI threatens him and tell him he's going down with the rest of the lawyers of The Firm. It could be like that."

"No, they're all really nice," I protested.

"Yeah, that's the shits. You got to watch out for the nice ones."

"Carl, cut it out. I like the job. It's fun."

"Me too, but it's boring after a year in this place."

Monday after my early mail delivery a uniformed carrier brought an envelope and only Ms. Mars could sign. Once she set it on her desk, she ripped the end off the big envelope and removed the smaller envelope I recognized. She made out a request for a receipt and handed it to me.

"Mr. McMichael. His secretary will sign before you take it to him. Put the receipt in your pocket so I can have it on file."

"Yes, ma'am," I said, taking the envelope and the key from her.

I ran at my usual pace, opened the door on the fortieth floor on the first try and was once more faced with the western view of the city. It could almost take my breath away as I watched a ferry steaming for the middle of the Sound. Mrs. Johnson was waiting for me when I finally stopped looking out of the window.

"Take it in," she said, after scrawling her signature on the receipt.

I knocked on the door.

"He's expecting it, Mr.Walker. Go on in," Mrs. Johnson told me with a smile.

"Oh, Mr. Walker," Mr. McMichael said, looking over his glasses at me. "It must be Monday."

He was leaning back in his chair and reading something that was stapled together, folding over each page as he read. He continued reading until he turned to the next page, then set the document on his desk placing a paperweight on top to hold it in place.

"Let's see what we've got," he said, opening and dumping cash, checks, and pledges onto the empty portion of his ink blotter. He was quickly stacking and counting the loose bills. He jotted down a number on the corner of the ink blotter before he looked at his watch.

"Can you count?' Mr. Walker.

"Yes, sir," I said.

"Can you run a calculator?" he asked, as he stacked a few dozen checks in front of him.

"Yes, sir."

"Here," he said, tossing me a small black Casio calculator.

Putting a paperclip on the checks, they followed the calculator.

"Sit in the chair by the bookcase and give me your count."

He got up and opened a door off behind his desk. I could immediately hear the water running and figured he had his own bathroom. He came out carrying his coat in one hand, rolling his sleeves down with the other. I had added the checks on the calculator and was double checking in my head.

"What are you doing?" he asked, seeing me leafing through the checks one at a time and not using the calculator.

"Double checking," I said.

"You are double check the calculator?"

"Yeah. I could have missed something or punched a wrong key," I explained.

"What does your brain say the total should be?" he asked, looking at the numbers on the calculator.

"Lost my place. I don't remember," I confessed.

"That's okay. I'm in a hurry but I can wait to see this. Go ahead and add them in your head again."

I went through the checks and added the mostly round numbers with only a few that had random dollars and cents.

"$27,774.12."

He looked at the calculator and then reached for a piece of paper on the desk.

"$27,774.12. I'll be."

"How'd you do that?"

"I added them in my head."

"I'll be," he said again.

"Look, I've got to go. The foundation is meeting with the bank and I'm the Executive Officer. I need the deposit so we can get the account up to date. Maybe I should take you to double check them," he said, putting on his jacket, scooping up the cash and pledges, and taking the checks out of my hand.

"Come on, young Walker, ride down with me in the elevator."

"Yes, sir," I said.

He opened the door for me and picked up a briefcase off the chair next to the door. He slipped the proceeds from the envelope inside the briefcase. We passed Mrs. Johnson's desk and headed for the waiting elevator. Straightening his tie he pushed the button for the parking garage. I'd already decided I'd take the stairs back to the mailroom.

"You going to school, Mr. Walker?"

"No, sir."

"You impress me. Why are you not in school?"

"School's out. It's June," I answered rather than go into details.

"Oh, that's true. Where will you go to school? University of Washington I hope. Good school, you know. We are quite proud of our University."

"I haven't thought that far ahead, Mr. McMichael."

"Well, this is where I must leave you," he said, stepping out of the elevator and walking over to a silver Lexus.

A uniformed man climbed out and Mr. McMichael slipped in and drove away. I pushed the button for the first floor figuring I'd had enough exercise for one day.

"Seventeenth floor," Ms. Mars said, leaning across the desk with an envelope as she looked at her watch. "They're waiting for it."

I raced up the stairs and popped out on the seventeenth floor and handed the envelope to Barbara who sat just inside of the office where the envelope went.

"Two minute forty-two," she said into the telephone. "You lost two seconds somewhere, Billie Joe," she sang as I waited to be excused.

The usual excruciatingly long last two hours of my day were shortened by Ms. Mars. She told me no deliveries were expected and no one was waiting for anything of which she'd been made aware and I could go. I'm sure she saw my reaction as I bolted for the door before she could change her mind. I suppose I should have insisted I stay but I hated those last two hours.

When I stepped outside, it had rained but the sun was out and the glistening streets sizzled as cars sped past. I usually went home with my brother, but I left a message that I was gone. I breathed deep waiting for the downtown bus and in fifteen minutes I was wandering the main floor of Pike's Market.

I stopped to look at the fresh fish resting on crushed ice. I bought a nectarine and some grapes, washing them in the sink next to the counter. I went to the restaurant that looked out on Peugeot Sound and took a seat at the windows, ordered coffee and thought about Carl. A ferry moved across the middle of the Sound and seemed to be almost standing still.

"Why the long face?" the waitress asked.

"Just thinking about someone I miss," I said, remembering Carl and the double feature I watched playing in his eyes at the same table exactly a year ago.

"I bet she's pretty," the middle-aged waitress said.

"Yes, he is," I said without batting an eyebrow.

I didn't look to see what her reaction might have been. It no longer mattered how people reacted to my life. I was not a prisoner of my family or the school system and I was in love with Carl and I didn't care who knew it. If I measured the time I had before he came back to me by the last two hours at work each day, I'd never get to August, but there was a special measurement when it came to Carl. It was awhile yet but not as long as it had been. I was in a good place, earning my way, and most of the hours each day sailed past.

I didn't stay downtown past the time I'd usually be home. There was a routine to my life and it was easier to stick to it. My brother had bought Chinese for our dinner, which we usually ate together. I had Egg Fu Yung and egg rolls with some of the hottest mustard I'd ever tasted in my life. Once we'd finished eating I went to see if the roof of my mouth was still there. It was, but I could hardly see it for the smoke.

I sat down with my latest letter for Carl as my brother listened to some rock and roll music. I felt the gold ring on my finger and left his best picture lying on my chest for reference. It wasn't a long letter but I tried to send one from the mailroom each morning. As the time grew closer for our reunion I wanted to leave no doubt how much I missed him and how anxious I was to see him. Of course I wrote that little detail into each letter more than once and he wrote the same in his letters.

He didn't mail letters as often as me but his were fat with pages and his access to the mail facilities wasn't nearly as convenient as mine. Anyway, I didn't write him so he'd write me every day, I wrote him because I needed to write him to feel our connection.

Ms. Mars never asked where the letters were going each morning when I bought the stamp. She certainly saw who they were addressed to and by the tenth or twelfth time I mailed such a letter, she may have sensed something more than a casual interest in the addressee, but if she did she didn't mention it. She was a great boss for my first real job ever and I knew I was lucky and wondered if maybe I wouldn't talk Carl into staying in Seattle for a few weeks once he came back to the States.

I never mentioned it in my letters and I knew whatever Carl wanted to do is what we'd do. He was in the Army and would still have close to a year before his tour of duty ended. I didn't want him to extend his service, because I never wanted him to be that far away from me ever again.

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