ISSUE FOUR
August 1998

Bruce Canwell

Bruce Canwell Bruce Canwell has been a freelance writer since 1989. His criticism and journalism have appeared in several publications, including The Portsmouth Press and Comic Book Week. His fiction has appeared in such small-press magazines as Prologue, Shadow Sword, and Millennium.  He writes for comic books.  Batman Chronicles: The Gauntlet (with acclaimed artist-and-collaborator Lee Weeks) gave readers the never-before-told first adventure of Robin, The Boy Wonder. Since then he has completed more Batman stories, and is currently reunited with Weeks on Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. for Marvel Comics.

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VI.

Sarah drove home. Geoff was too irate after his meeting with Barry to concentrate on anything, especially rush-hour traffic.

"I hate this!" Geoff’s venomous tone reminded Sarah of the note in her ex-husband’s voice whenever he would try to convince her she had done something stupid and wrong. "Being insulted by these fascists is -- degrading! Do they think we’ll just lap up the party line when they throw it at us? Have they forgotten about the First Amendment?"

Sarah quietly said, "The First Amendment doesn’t forgive shouting ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theater."

"It does give people the right to know what’s going on. Remember Watergate?"

Now Sarah rolled her eyes. "Of course. But Woodward and Bernstein had evidence to back up their claims -- right now all you have is rumors. And you know how I feel about rumors." Her hands tightened on the steering wheel at the flash of memories: in those last months of her marriage, before she’d moved out, all sorts of wild fabrications about her private life had been created by people with nothing better to do than take pleasure at the pain of others. The first rumor had been that she and Reed were getting a divorce -- no, they were staying together and planning a second honeymoon to Hawaii -- no, they had agreed to an open marriage and were both free to see other people. The grapevine said she was having affairs with at least three different men, one of whom she had never met. There had even been a rumor she had moved in with Geoffrey; Sarah believed he’d never heard that one, because if he had he would have mentioned it to her and helped squelch it. Still, that whole period brought Sarah as close to the edge as she ever wanted to come -- it had been hard enough dealing with all the real issues involved in ending a marriage without wrestling with phantoms and having her reputation blackened in the eyes of acquaintances and strangers alike.

Geoff was giving her a cold look. "Are you saying you agree with Barry?"

"I’m saying you really, honestly don’t know anything is going on. Not for a fact. But here you are, going around rocking the boat, and now people like Tammi and Tom Greavy are going to go home tonight and lose sleep worrying about something that may never happen and what it means to their futures. It’s not productive. They have better things to do, and I think you do, too."

He looked as if he had just been struck. Swinging around to glare out the passenger window, he muttered, "I can’t believe you said that."

"And I can’t believe you’ve lost sight of what matters!" Sarah said, exasperated. "This job is making you miserable, Geoff -- screw it! It doesn’t matter if WrightTech gets bought, by Brand-MacDougall or by Burger King! Your writing matters! That’s all, that’s your future! Can’t you see that?"

Geoff’s voice was ice as he said, "All I know is, I’m stuck eating what that miserable son of a bitch dishes out five days a week, because he isn’t smart enough to use me to my demonstrated potential." Geoff was shaking his head now, bitterness inscribed in every line on his face. "I can’t see the future, but I know the present is chipping away at me. I lie down and take it from Barry day after day -- I can’t lie down on this, too, Sarah, I can’t!"

She made a left turn onto her street, glancing in his direction as she accelerated. "What are you going to do?"

"Next staff meeting is Thursday at one. Let’s see how Barry likes having to answer me point-blank when I ask him about this buy-out thing in front of everybody."

"What if he fires you?"

"Then he fires me! At least I won’t be crawling on my belly like Erik Spengler."

Sarah made one last turn, pulling into her driveway and stopping the car next to Geoff’s blue Taurus. "You’re making a mistake. You need to build something better, not throw a fit and destroy everything you’ve worked for, including your reputation. You need to go home and think, really think, about all this."

As Geoff opened his door he laughed, a sharp, coarse bark. "Funny, that’s just what Barry said."

 

 

VII.

Geoffrey’s Tuesday and Wednesday passed in even greater solitude than usual. He clamped on the headphones of his Walkman and kept the music of David Bowie, the Rolling Stones, Elvis Costello, and Warren Zevon thumping in his ears throughout the workday; his constant scowl left no question that he wished to be alone. People gave his office wide berth and those who had to see him on business-related issues did not linger to chat. Voice mail recorded two messages from Roger Landry. He left them unanswered, preferring the company of his own dark thoughts.

Sarah avoided him both in and out of the office, but she was often on his mind. Part of the time he found himself inwardly raging, How could she say those things? For Chrissakes, she knows I support every free-speech group going! Now the fight is on my doorstep and she wants me to knuckle under. It’s -- wrong.

But, because it was Sarah, because he trusted her counsel, he could not disregard her message. There were periods when he thought, She’s right, of course. It’s over for me here, and I have to face that. I can’t go back to the good old days, and Barry’s never going to loosen the choke-collar. I need to make a change, Sarah wants me to make that change. And, let’s face it, you’re the only one who’s upset -- everyone else is content to cozy up to the weasels and creeps.

By Wednesday night he was staring down a handful of grim truths as he tossed alone, sleepless in his bed.

 

The real problem is the way you’ve let your life get derailed. You bought into the snake oil WrightTech was selling, and after that you were geared to make good things happen for the company at the expense of making good things happen for yourself. What do you have to show for it? You’re thirty-six years old -- no wife, no family, and a long way from that writing career you keep trying to find time for. Of course, all you have to do is wave Brand-MacDougall in Barry’s face and you’ll have plenty of time to write: you’ll be out of a job.

You’ll probably be out of Sarah’s life, too. . .

 

 

VIII.

John O. Barry sat at the head of the conference table and droned on about everything from upcoming contracts WrightTech would bid to the annual United Way charity drive. A typical boring staff meeting, Sarah thought. And it’ll stay that way until Geoff drops his bomb.

Normally Sarah and Geoff sat side-by-side during staff meetings. Today they were on opposite sides of the table and the looks from a handful of their co-workers indicated the break in routine had been noticed. Sarah sat almost diagonally across the conference table from Geoffrey, who was two seats to Barry’s left. This was the first time in three days she had seen him -- they still had not spoken -- and her vantage point made it easy to glance his way. She tried without success to discern his intentions from the set of his mouth, the glint in his eyes.

Her attention shifted back to Barry as he said, "That’s all I have. Let’s go around the table and see what’s new with you." He turned to Tammi Torentino, seated immediately to his left. "Tammi?"

"Nothing. In my world, everything’s capital." She made the same weak joke at every meeting and, as usual, it earned the same anemic laughs.

"Geoff?" Barry prompted.

Sarah drew a deep breath. Geoff leaned forward in his chair, then rapped the knuckles of his left hand on the table twice. "I pass," he said.

"Really?" Barry asked, a smug look on his face.

"Really," Geoff echoed, locking his boss’s gaze with his own. "I have nothing to say."

"Well. . ." Barry seemed at a loss for a moment, a schoolyard bully with no one to push around. Then he recovered and said, "Well, it’s a quiet week, I guess. How about you, Tom. . .?"

Geoff spent the rest of the meeting staring down at the tabletop. As soon as everyone had had their chance to speak and the meeting was officially adjourned he was out of his chair, the first one to leave the room. By the time Sarah could get through the door and reach Geoff’s office he was nowhere to be seen. She left a note on his desk -- Don’t leave without coming to see me -- then returned to her desk to wait.

Hours passed and Sarah was unable to get Geoff off her mind. What was he doing? How was he feeling? One of the biggest differences between the two of them was the way they dealt with adversity: Geoff wanted to get the bad stuff out on the table for everyone to know about. Holding back in that meeting must have torn at his insides. Sarah, on the other hand, had always found it easier to keep things penned up out of sight. During her divorce it had been especially important to maintain an upbeat pretense, because the moment she started to let go it she knew it would all come flooding out, taking her self-control with it.

To his credit, during those hellish days Geoff had respected her need to keep the pain locked away. He couldn’t understand the approach, but he knew it worked for her, so he had rarely pushed her to talk. On those days when she had felt strong enough to volunteer information he listened closely, asking enough questions to prove his interest and show his support. It was only after the decree was final she learned he had bought one of those Do Your Own Divorce books and hit the library on several occasions to research the emotional and physical stresses in a divorcee’s life in order to understand her situation and help support her.

 

In a way, she said to herself as she stared absently at her computer screen, Geoff’s going through a divorce of his own. For seven years he’s been married to his work, meeting every crisis, even when he’s had to work forty hours without sleep or put in eighty hour weeks. It’s always been a bad marriage for him, but it’s taken this current position to make him realize it. He shouldn’t try to save it -- he really doesn’t want to -- but that doesn’t stop him from a last, desperate attempt to create a crisis, hoping it shocks the other side to its senses. That’s what this whole B-M flap is, an attempt to make the company see how Barry is mistreating him. I can understand that. How many times did I go storming off to spend the night in a hotel, hoping all the while I’d hear "Don’t go!" before the door closed behind me. . .?

Geoff was there through it all. He’ll always be there for me. What can I do to help him through this?

The answer, she realized, was at the other end of the phone.

 

 

IX.

"I got your note. You wanted to talk?"

It was after 4:30 PM when Geoff showed up at Sarah’s desk. He looked pale, tense and stiff and edgy. Sarah gave him a warm grin, telling him, "I came looking for you after staff, but you weren’t in your office."

"I needed a walk," he said, forcing a thin smile of his own. "Think of it as a late lunch."

"I wanted you to know I was proud of you in there. You did the right thing."

Suddenly he couldn’t meet her eyes. "I’m right, Sarah." He worried his lower lip between his teeth for a long moment, fighting for composure. "You know, we say Americans would never tolerate oppressors like Nazis or the Chinese Communists, but we’re kidding ourselves. Man, we live with little oppressions every day, and we’d cave in to the big ones the first time the going got rough. Goons like Barry have this Thought Police attitude, and it -- it frightens me. The only thing scarier is people like Erik, the ones who are willing to live on their knees, ready to justify themselves from now ’til Doomsday. I don’t want to be one of those people.

"What makes it tough is that I know you’re right, too. I’m wasting my time here, and I’m throwing good energy after bad if I keep pressing the B-M issue. Free speech isn’t important to Tom and Tammi and the rest, all they care about is keeping the gravy train chugging until they pay off that mortgage, or the car loans, or get enough money into the kids’ college fund. If this is a battle I have to fight, my best line of attack is to put what I have to say into a story."

"Or a novel," said Sarah.

"Yeah. As I drove in this morning I knew I was going to keep my lip buttoned, but I also realized I have some vacation time left this year, and I think I’ll use it to get the first four chapters of my book written." He took a deep breath before continuing. "It scares the bejeezus out of me to say this, but I’m going to be out of this company for good by the end of the year."

Then he took her right hand in both of his and the words were chasing each other out of his mouth. "But none of it will mean anything without you, Sarah. I love you, and I want you in my life more than I’ve ever wanted anyone and I don’t want this to come between us. I’d give anything to go back to Monday and change it so all this never happened. . ."

She put the fingers of her free hand to his lips, quieting him. "Don’t say that, baby," she whispered. "It’s important for you to go through this. It’s hurt to get yourself to this point, I know, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that you have to hurt before you can heal. That’s part of being human."

"Better to feel bad than not feel anything at all?"

"Something like that, yeah." She leaned over to kiss him, her tongue parting his lips with an urgency that took him by surprise. When he responded she quickly drew back, pulling away and looking serious. "I still have about an hour’s worth of work ahead of me, but I want to be out of here before six. Can you hang around and come home with me?"

He nodded, releasing her hand as she gently pulled it free and made a shooing motion.

"Then scoot and let me finish up here. I’ll come down and get you when I’m ready to go."

 

 

X.

Sarah showed up in Geoffrey’s office a few minutes before six. She could see he was still wrestling with the emotions jumbled inside him and wasted no time hurrying him out of his office and down the Admin building stairs.

"Just like a woman," he scoffed, trying to keep the mood light despite his own inner turmoil. "You keep me cooling my heels for an hour, then rush me out the door as if you’ve been waiting for me all this time!"

As they stepped into the production area Sarah pointed at the electronic billboard. "I talked to Wally this afternoon and I think there’s something on here you need to see."

"I can’t imagine what that could be," Geoff grumbled, watching as a notice from the company safety committee scrolled past.

"Humor me and keep watching." Sarah dug a playful forefinger into his ribs. "Promise?"

"All right! I promise, I promise!"

They walked over to the board, looking up as a message from the United Way appeared briefly, followed by a promotion for WrightTech’s recreation association. Then it flashed into life, in the biggest green letters Wally had been able to program onto the giant screen:

 

QUESTION AUTHORITY!

QUESTION AUTHORITY!!

QUESTION AUTHORITY!!!

 

The more prosaic bulletins resumed their crawl while Sarah said, "See, I was right about all this -- but you were right, too. And this was the best way I could find to tell you that."

Then she was in his arms and they were kissing, and then the kisses mixed with laughter, and with salty tears that trickled into the corners of their mouths.

And Geoff knew he had found a future worth embracing.

THE END.

 

Bruce Canwell: Fiction
Copyright 1999 The Cortland Review Issue FourThe Cortland Review