Charles is never the last one in. But today he is. Usually he arrives as the sun rattles in the trees on the hill behind the building, carrying a coffee and a bagel in a cardboard tray.
When it’s raining he holds a folded newspaper over his breakfast. But today it is clear, the sun is already atop the trees, and it was hard to find a spot in the parking lot.
“Hi, Charles,” the lady who sits by the door closest to the stairwell says as he tucks his badge into his pocket. She was looking up until he glanced at her.
“Morning, Rae,” he says quietly.
The stairwell echoes like always and there is candy wrapper on the landing, fluttering across the tiles. Charles picks it up and puts this in his pocket, too. There is a trashcan just outside the door on the second floor where he works.
“Hey, big guy,” the new guy says, tucking in his shirt outside the bathroom as Charles goes past.
“Morning,” Charles says as he turns the corner to find his desk.
Charles’ mother passed away in the night. Early enough that his sister, who had been staying with the old woman, called him before midnight. He had stood in the bright kitchen (Charles is old-fashioned in this way, still having a landline beside the fridge) and wept quiet tears as he nodded to what his sister was telling him.
“I’ll let you go,” he said as his sister began to sniffle and he could hear ambulance workers talking in the background. “Take care, Madonna. I love you.”
He sits at his desk and opens the morning paper, expecting the obituary to be there. But it is not. He will have at least one more day before he gets asked why his sister is named Madonna. He moves on to this book by Jonas, this fellow who teaches philosophy at a prestigious little Vermont liberal arts college, and who has taken the stance that moral values are all shit.
There have been numerous rewrites. He has no less than four emails from Jonas ranting about the need to send his book to the presses. Get off your ass already, Jonas typed, and get something done for a change, bozo.
It is one of the few grammatically correct sentences Charles has ever seen this man write.
“Charles?” Rae whispers over the wall of his cubicle.
He looks up and finds her pouting, head tilted, holding a stack of papers below her quivering chin.
“They want you to sign these papers,” she tells him.
Charles is being told he can take ample time off to bury – and grieve for – his mother. There is a little scrawled note at the bottom of the HR page that tells him god is here for him in these times of sorrow.
Praying for you, hon ❤
And he instinctively smells the paper and gets a whiff of gardenia or something like it. He goes back to the bathroom and stands in a stall and calls Madonna. She is still sniffling and says she could not go in to work.
“How do you do it, Charlie?” she says. “How can you go in to work today?”
He turns his feet facing the door, as someone comes in and grabs a seat next door. He waits for the unbuckling to end before he whispers back.
“I have a few things to put to bed before I take time off,” he tells her. “Plus we have a sensible bereavement policy here. I’m only in for a few hours.”
There is a sound that he knows means the stakes have been upped and then a corresponding odor that supplies an alert for him to evacuate if he can. It will only get worse.
Back at his desk he pecks out a reply to Jonas. Your book is going to print Friday. Hope you enjoy the hell that you’re going to put people through with your drivel. Best Regards, Charlie.
Max leans forward over his keyboard and sighs when Charles comes around before lunch to say he is taking two weeks. Max is the type who delegates everything, the joke being around the department: Who fucks his ugly wife for him?
“Sorry to hear it, Charles,” Max says, scratching his forehead with a pen. “She was what, eighty?”
She seemed so much younger. His mother still put on funny hats and went to arts events and sang in the corners of galleries with other demented old ladies. She liked to say that she was Irish, and there’s nothing you can do about that.
“Eighty-four,” Charles says.
Max nods and leans back to a vertical position. He taps at his desk.
“Jonas is really goddamned pissed off,” he says. “He is going off on everybody right now, saying you insulted him and should be fired.”
Charles is reminded of the old philosopher’s dictum that morality is negotiable, and as such we should feed off of those too stupid or incapable of swaying our minds.
“Are you going to fire me?” Who would fire a man whose mother has just died? Whose dead mother is right this minute laying on the undertaker’s slab, being injected and cut like a heap of chicken breasts.
Max tells him to go home and take of things, that if he fires him, he would probably get fired himself.
“Hey,” Max says, catching him at the door, as he is moving his mouse over an obituary on his screen. “You have a sister named Madonna?”
Causes Sean Jackson Supports
PFLAG, Amnesty International, AA, Catholic Social Services