The Disappearance of Mr. Harry Golden
By Patricia Greene
Of course, he should have taken the elevator. On the second floor landing he stopped to shift the heavy saxophone case that was aggravating his arthritic shoulder. He listened to the sound of his wingtip shoes against the cement stairs that reverberated in the tall silence as if some fool were beating a gong for every year he’d spent at Golden Valve. It occurred to him that this extra 6 a.m. exercise was about buying time to sidestep the truth that he was unprepared for this last day.
The door to the molding room stood ajar an hour before first shift. He stepped inside and stared into the early morning silence, waiting for something ominous to reveal itself. Rows of tall round-top windows filled with sultry summer sky marched off to the far end in lockstep with rows of columns and lines of tan machines punctuated by scarred linoleum tables. Overhead fans stirred the soon-to-be oppressive air. He switched on the noisy air conditioners, set down the sax and briefcase, which in a fit of unprecedented efficiency the night before he’d purged of every paper. Why had he brought it? Habit. Just the old habit of feeling undefined without it.
Pacing down the center aisle, he stopped to stare at one of the cutting blades under its plastic safety shield, and remembered the dream that had woken him at dawn where the same blade had edged into his chest, slicing it open rib-by-rib, as if performing a triple-bypass. Unable to sleep, he’d padded barefoot to the sliding door and slipped behind the curtain. It could have been half an hour he stood, forehead against the cool glass, staring over the backyard into the mist. There was an overwhelming desire to walk out onto the deck, across the dewy lawn, down the hill to Harwood and Millington Streets, left onto Route 5 and north over the mountains. Before he could submerge his yearning to wander in the sure outline of his day, his wife, Miriam, moaned with the oncoming weight of another morning.
“Harry? Harry, where are you?” she called out, panic constricting her voice. His sudden reappearance from behind the curtain caused her to gasp. “You disappeared!” she said, thus giving his relationship to the day a name—this necessity to walk ungracefully out of a life.
He found himself staring into a canvas bin filled with rejected steel discs. His father had often arrived home with bulging pockets full of these giant’s rings, and emptying those pockets as a child, he’d found pieces of penny candy at the bottom. On the living room floor the metal rings had grown into gleaming castles, each more elaborate and delicately balanced than the one before. His mother, impatient with the mess and blind to his budding architectural talent, one day swept the valve castles together, threw them away, and that night forbade her husband to bring home any more factory trash.
Rooting around in the bin, he picked out handfuls of discs, divided them by size, and piled them up in practiced interlocking stacks to see whether his castle building skills had survived. The first tower stayed upright, so he constructed a second and a third, smiling as he imagined Barney Lepler’s face when he saw it. The shop steward was his best friend, but the man thought he knew everything; he was in control.
“Who would do such a crazy thing, Harry?” Barney would ask in his agitated way.
“Gee, Barney, I don’t know,” he'd reply with a nonchalant shrug. “The door was open when I came in. Could be some loony hiding out up here.”
Before he could finish his fantasy, Harry was startled by the whine of the copy machine in the front office and swept the castle back into the bin. He retrieved one ring, shoved it into his pocket, then opened the office door to discover that it was his secretary, Barbara McVeigh, who had invaded his morning. This was the morning he needed the quiet before first shift to swivel in his chair and watch the canal flowing within cement banks between Golden Valve and the empty brick silk mill. He pushed his empty briefcase across the pristine tan blotter on his desk. Barbara knew a clean blotter soothed him. She ordered them in bulk and every other Friday slipped in a new one after piling all his fingered papers in the logical cubbies she had designed where he could never find them. As her footsteps approached, he rushed to hide the sax, then managed to put his briefcase on the floor, shove his glasses back up his nose, skim the few white strands on the top of his head into face-framing harmony, button his summer suit coat over the girth of his middle, sit, and fold his hands over the blotter as if he’d been there all night.
“Why Harry, you’re here early.” Barbara’s voice was full of questions.
He shrugged. “It can happen every half century. What're you doing here?”
She yanked up the venetian blinds and turned on the air conditioner, talking over her shoulder the whole time. “Miriam's not doing poorly, I hope. She seemed stronger the last time I saw her. I thought maybe things were a bit better.”
Having avoided his question and commented on his wife's hypochondria, Barbara gave him a once-over through her blue-rimmed glasses. “You just relax today. I'll make your coffee,” she said, and hurried off to the windowless kitchen where on snowy days they ate sandwiches together under the greenish fluorescent light.
Harry leaned back in the sculpted beige executive chair Barbara had ordered years ago to replace his father’s squeaky mahogany one that fell over if you leaned too far back. Also gone was the battleship-gray metal desk, swapped for an oak one that had unfortunately done little to boost her boss’s executive pizzazz. It was she who had suggested building The Wall so that anyone in the office, formerly a dreary corner of the factory sectioned off with frosted glass dividers, would no longer struggle to hear above the rumble of machines. He had to admit it was sensible not to leave with a headache or to develop his father's habit of roaring, but Sid Golden, ever proud of recounting the years he’d spent sweating over the grinder, had never allowed the building of walls between himself and his workers. Harry had tried saying no to his secretary’s idea, but in the locking gear that was his brain she’d broken all but a few teeth. The wall was built, transforming the office into a bright, quiet, separate place of tan carpets, textured wallpaper, well-watered plants, oak furniture, and valve posters—all framed.
Really, he had no complaints, except that her diligence pushed him past boundaries that had settled in long ago. Barbara hadn't been what his father would have called a “wowser,” and she was a shiksa, but she’d been his choice after loud, buxom, blue-haired Esther Rubenfeld retired within a few months of his father's untimely death. The first day that Barbara McVeigh sat in the outer office with her neatly tied Christian blouse and discreet Christian perfume, the smell of stale cigar smoke finally dissipated. She had a Mona Lisa smile—subdued was what he named the elusive quality that played about her mouth. For years he’d toyed with the mystery of her like a smooth stone he could not put down.
When he looked up, Barbara stood in the doorway holding a steaming mug of coffee, but not his mug, not the white one Ernie Kastenbach had given him years ago with the big red letters declaring to all who needed convincing, You're the boss! Ernie knew it was he who needed the daily reminder. Barbara smiled her perplexing smile and held up the new mug for his inspection, an earth-colored thing with some blue and green squiggles that reminded him of something he’d seen at a craft fair his daughter-in-law had dragged him to. He frowned in spite of himself.
“Well, go ahead, grumble about your old cup,” she said, still displaying the new one like a museum piece. “I thought it was time for a change. By the way, I made it!”
This information did not fit his idea of her. He shook his head at vague unsettling visions of Barbara in dusty jeans and tie-dye scarf, wet fingers rounding shapely tan pots on a wheel, then began waving his hands in the air to erase the image.
“Oh I—I like it. No joke, Barbara, you made it?”
She lowered the earth-colored thing onto his desk, spilling coffee. A double-knobbed Rorschach ate up his pristine blotter. She did not run for a sponge, but instead slid a sheet of company stationery into place beside the stain. On the top, TO: Mr. Harry Golden, like hundreds of memos that had come shuttling across his blotter in the past. Like to submit . . . many good years . . . Golden Valve . . . regret . . . effective today. His eyes skipped from word to word and back again. It made no sense. Barbara had agreed to stay on for nine months to a year to help with the transition to overseas manufacturing planned by Allied Metals, the new buyer.
“Sorry to spring this on you now,” she said, “but I woke up last night in a cold sweat and knew I couldn’t help them send what you’ve built to China. It isn’t right. I mean, some of these guys have been here longer than you have, Harry.”
He caught a new look—was it outrage, a backward kind of courage? Resting at her side, her hands made him aware of the comfort he took in their usual busyness—juggling papers, taking notes, running through the short hair he’d watched turn from mousy brown to dyed chestnut with red highlights to mostly gray. The unexpected directness of her gaze made him feel undressed, left him pink and squirming in his executive chair.
He turned toward the window to find comfort in the ordered flow of the canal. An odd thought penetrated his brain. Could it be Barbara who’d sent such disturbing messages in his dreams last night, like some dark angel flapping beyond the edge of his vision? Was she supervising the disassembly of his life? When Barbara cleared her throat, he swung back around, hands gripping the beige chair arms the way they did in planes taking off—bloodless knuckles, cramped fingers. He tried to focus, although the idea of her flapping had caught in the folds of his brain.
She sat down in the chair beside his desk. “Actually it’s been bothering me for a while, but I didn't want you to worry.”
Worry. Yes, if he'd known she would not stay to gentle the dissolution of his company he would have shredded his nails and drummed on his blotter until his fingers were stumps. She understood how much time he needed with things, even his worrying. She placed her hand halfway across the stained blotter, and he thought it might be okay this last day to cover it with his own, but then didn’t.
“I should’ve taken you out to lunch to tell you,” she said with a sigh. “We could’ve walked in the park—you and me—after all these years.”
“Barbara, it’s in the Allied contract. They need you. We need you,” he wailed, trusting his coiled spring of need to catapult them into some star-spangled sky where wishes came true. “You only have a year 'til full pension.”
Someone had to be here smoothing it over for the crew as they lost their jobs. Her agreement to stay on had gone a small distance toward assuaging his guilt at Allied’s insistence that some uncaring Ohio executive fill his chair from this day forward. He’d met the man—all business, false smiles, limp handshakes, obnoxiously calm. Why hadn’t he sold to Shapner when he’d had the chance eight years ago? Or sold on the cheap to his union workers? Barney Lepler had suggested that, but his brothers and sons, aware of their shrinking shares, had nixed the idea.
Barbara withdrew the hand that had lain before him like an offering. He clasped his own together in a foolish kind of childlike supplication. “Come on now. Tell old Harry what you want.” The lilt in his voice fell embarrassingly flat. “Listen, I think you're due for a raise. I can still make that happen.”
“No,” she said, the simple word slamming against him like a tidal wave.
She looked down, then raised her eyes to meet his. “You know, Harry, I’m fifty-four, and what I want is time to start living the life I imagined when I was—”
“Listen, what about windows?” he interrupted. “I could ask them to give you Ernie's office when he retires next month.” With a sudden intake of breath he leaned forward. “Oy, tell me it’s not the breast cancer again.” He imagined her head against his shoulder as he comforted her, welcomed her back to the fold, offered to take care of her, even, God forgive him, eventually marry her. Why hadn’t he done that ten years ago, after her divorce?
She cut short his anticipation by looking up dry-eyed with a smile. “Let’s hope not. But the cancer was definitely a wake-up call.”
To cover himself, he picked up the earth-colored mug, swallowed the cooling coffee like diluted acid, and then said, “I tried to make it good for you. You could have worked uptown. Believe me, I know.”
“We both tried, Harry. And it was an honest run. You hung on and cared about ninety-five union workers making top-notch valves.” She sighed. “But it’s a different world now. All about bottom line and computers, not how well Jan Kowalski handles that grinder. So what if Chinese valves fail?” She meant to say it bitterly, but he could sense the emotion tightening her voice. “We've given our lives to this place, and last night I woke up thinking: What for? It’s all collapsing around us—what we believed.”
Intensity coursed through his sluggish veins. If only he’d made Barbara McVeigh president of Golden Valve, it all might have been different. She alone had kept the company from fulfilling the dire predictions made by his mother to anyone who would listen at his father's shiva. Barbara was better at this job than Harry had ever been. She’d taken to the language of metal and machines, flow and stop, and never flinched when the sales rep demonstrated new calibrating computers. She attended conferences and took courses to keep an eye on the escalating degree of mechanical sophistication. She ordered machines like a pro and even made the guys teach her how to use them. He fully admitted the error in casting that had placed him where he was, and should have stepped aside to let her sit in the beige chair. He had never seen himself as boss, elbowing Esther Rubenfeld and pointing a fat cigar at what needed to be done. Of course, he’d never dared to see himself as anything after that spring day when his older brothers defected. Seymour had gotten into medical school and Leonard had announced he was planning to apply to Columbia Law School the next year.
One night at dinner his father slapped the table.
“So. I'm losing sons right and left.”
The older boys stared at their plates.
“Well, your little brother and I, we'll keep the company going so you two can be big shots. Won't we, Harry?”
Oh, the blinding murderous rage that roiled in his gut against his brothers for taking what they wanted and throwing him the scraps. Twisting on the upholstered dining-room chair, he’d wanted to cry out, “But Pa, what about the sax? What about the conservatory and the jazz band? What about my dreams?”
“Won't we, Harry?” roared his father, while his mother squeezed his hand, and his brothers kicked him under the table. That summer he turned seventeen and went to work as the office boy—and whether Golden Valve became his prison, his university, his excuse, or his escape from a bad marriage, it also became his home. His father insisted he spend years learning to handle each machine. Maybe it hadn’t been a half-bad run, even though Harry was a jazz man, a slider who approached the note from underneath and sideways, rather than being a straight-on, stop-and-start man like his father. He was not demanding or farsighted enough, or tough in negotiations with the local. He fraternized with the workers: jokester, cheerleader, counselor, backslapper, never quite CEO. And now he was being forced to abandon ship while they drowned.
“So, after nineteen years you're just going to walk out that door and disappear?” He said it using his grandmother's heaviest guilt-maker tone. Rose Golden had moved mountains with that matter-of-fact impalement. He had hopes for its effect on Barbara, although calculating the amount of immunity to guilt granted her as a Christian was difficult. He used Rose's sniff and limp-wristed sweep of the hand for emphasis. “Well, go then. Mazel tov.”
“Harry, don't be funny. I am going.”
“I'm moving to New Mexico. I’ve been spending my vacations there, remember?”
Now he truly felt shrinkage of imagination. The idea of Barbara in blue jeans and red cowboy boots leaning on a cactus lay beyond the fringes of his gray matter. His lower lip freed itself from the normal set of his mouth and hung.
Why hadn't she confided her discontent? But, of course, she’d never told him much. Oh, they chatted, they joked, but the things he knew about her life, beyond his own manufacture, were surface striations—blond children named Kate and Chris in their frames on her desk, growing past high school, then college, and off somewhere distant; her protracted divorce settlement, but never the anger and tears; her mother's moving in and subsequent death; green zucchini and red zinnias from her side-yard garden on Briggs Avenue. Sometimes he’d found excuses to walk up there past the neat brown duplex with tan trim, but it seemed the office was their home together and he hadn't the finesse to achieve any expansion of those horizons, although it had been twelve years since he’d even thought about sex with his wife. It scared him, the possibility of knowing the color of Barbara’s bedspread, even though he often lay on it in the cradle of his imagination.
“Oy vey, Barbara, why?” The question fell out of his mouth, dumb and limitless at the same time. “You found a better job? You're getting married? Some guru told you?”
“Calm down. I haven’t joined a cult and I don’t have a boyfriend.” She sighed. “You know, the last time I remember having days to do things just because I loved doing them, I think I was ten. I want to meditate and garden and do yoga, and there’s this interesting potter I met out there who’ll take me on as an assistant. I love the desert. I want to explore the cliff dwellings and play with my grandchildren—who, by the way, live in Santa Fe.”
The thought of her distant freedom made him angry, as if once again someone had left him minding the store.
“Life is short,” she continued, “and even with an all-expenses paid trip to China, I just can’t wait another year. They’ll manage. Last night I decided to go ahead and put the house on the market. Oh, Harry, I can taste it, I’m so excited.” The edginess of a tightrope walker without a net was in her voice. Could he catch her when she fell?
“No one’s ever quit a year before pension, Barbara.”
“I know it sounds crazy. But I’ll get half pension. I have some money saved, and some equity in the house, and I can downsize.” She closed her eyes. “Think about it, Harry. Having whole days to just—be.”
She laughed a private laugh that did not include him, then caught herself, but he had already seen the mystery go out of her face for the first time. Whole days just to be. Why had this so unhinged him? He felt himself shrinking and grasped the edge of his desk, as if he would soon be three inches high on a log in a surging Alice in Wonderland flood. If he could not imagine Barbara among the cacti, he was equally bereft of a vision of himself from this day forward.
Barbara folded her arms. “Well, you have to admit making valves isn't the easiest way to self-realization.”
He frowned, angry at how she was dismissing this place, as if she could leave it and him with no regret.
“After today you can do whatever you want, you know,” she said.
“Don't be silly.”
“I’m not. Surprise yourself. You deserve that.” She was presenting the idea as if she didn't find it outrageous. “Why not?” she added, just to irk him.
“Like what, Barbara? What would I do at my age? Start an old geezer jazz band?” Wished he hadn't said it, buying into her game. For a choked moment he wondered if she was offering him some kind of backhanded invitation or test.
Pressing her lips together, she reached across the desk to stroke the back of his hand. He slid his fingers over hers and dared to meet her gaze for an uncovered moment. The story it told scared him. She had broken from the shore they’d clung to together. Close to half a century he’d waited for escape, but now that it was happening he found himself unready. It took courage and imagination to disappear. Over the years he’d made rough peace with his flat, undisappeared existence, even though there were twisted nights and dark angels and the cutting blade on his chest.
Barbara rose, turned on her heel, and came back to place another one of her papers in front of him, as if the high-wire moment in which they had been suspended was over.
“My job description,” she explained brightly, with those aggravating arched eyebrows. “We’ll leave it for dear Mr. Bernstein.”
“You—really won’t be here on Monday?”
“No, Harry. I’m resigning as of this afternoon. We’ll walk out together—after the party.”
The party. Barbara had been planning balloons, streamers, speeches, cake, champagne, and had even ordered a box of 14-karat miniature gold butterfly valves (his father’s traditional parting gift). For weeks he’d been struggling to compose an eloquent farewell speech for this party of hers. She’d suggested that he surprise the crew with a sax solo. After a week of obstinate refusal, he’d secretly dug out the old alto sax he hadn’t played in ten years and brought it down to Conkey Music to be cleaned, oiled, adjusted, and fitted with a new reed. In the basement rec room where Miriam wouldn’t hear, he’d practiced “Star Dust” and other standards late into the night, but now the idea of celebrating had gone out of him.
When he returned to his senses, Harry found himself alone. Barbara had left him to do what she labeled “rattling around.” Heavy marching boot steps echoed as the first shift came on like an invading army. Behind the beige office wall the crew was adjusting earmuffs, goggles, aprons, and head gear, firing up computers and falling back into the rhythm of the big machines. It was the last time he’d hear the familiar metallic din. All this century of family effort, from Sam the Adventurous who stepped off the boat at Ellis Island in 1894 and after a stint in the sweatshops and tenements of the East Village found a decent job through a friend up at Greenfield Tap and Die; to Sid the Ambitious who worked alongside his father at sixteen, then graduated to the Precision Valve Company farther south, attended night school in mechanical engineering, became head of the local UE, and progressed through the ranks until he took over as vice president to the alcoholic founder, and in 1955 bought the company; to Harry the Failure under whose rule Golden Valve would be dismantled and shipped halfway round the world. Today the symphonic roar of machines gave him a headache.
He compulsively filled his recycling box, read irrelevant emails, then took down the colorful chart posters Barbara had made. Long ago, before she graduated to Power Points, he’d used them in presentations to the board, where he hammed it up, gave them hope, made them laugh about red ink. It appealed to the part of him that had always wanted to be a performer. But with the cancellation of the Rigfeld contract two years ago, there had been no ham.
Harry slid deeper into the trough of his morning. He instinctively turned to the window to watch the canal. White midday light flattened the shadows of the forlorn landscape. All the factories but his stood boarded up, brick walls sporting colorful layers of rather artistic graffiti. Pieces of purple slate hung loose near the peak of the silk mill roof where seagulls lined up to create a row of white droppings. Over the years there had been talk of rehabilitating Factory Row—an arts and crafts gallery, a fabric store, condos—but the lower end of Broad Street was as yet unsaved by the city fathers, and now there was no money. Ten years ago he had entertained a move to the industrial park and maybe it would have made a difference, although it seemed that the idea of factories like his had a dull economic edge these days that no amount of tweaking could hone.
The door to the main office swung inward and his older brother strode in. No greeting, office door closed firmly behind him, Lenny stood towering over the desk. He threw down a letter with Harry’s signature and said in his precise, imperious, lawyerly voice, “Please explain this.”
Lenny was founder of the uptown firm Golden, Wasserman, Fitch, and Golden, the last addition due to his own son’s recent promotion to partner.
Harry fingered the letter that contained his final declaration about division of the spoils, then pushed it away. The brotherly fury at his insistence that the terms of severance packages be negotiated before he left, and at his concessions to the union, had made him operate close to the edge of fairness. His brothers had wrung every last dollar out of Allied, just possibly the reason Allied had decided to knee them by off-shoring this operation. Then they had questioned the meaning of their father’s will in dividing income from any sale of Golden Valve into three unequal parts, with Harry taking the lion’s share.
“We made an agreement last Thursday that we would divide things equally,” Lenny reminded him, sitting down uncomfortably close with a dominant big-brother stare. Harry struggled to project calm, though his heart was rushing headlong. Lenny picked up the letter and hurled it down again for effect. “Plus, this follows the original payouts to the workers, which you agreed to reduce.” An exaggerated shaking of the head. “We trusted you, Harry.” Lenny tapped the letter dramatically with his forefinger. “Did you lose your mind here? What mind you have? Where’s the sheet I typed out with our agreement?”
Suddenly the bend of branches on the old apple tree behind Gramma Rose's house filled Harry’s mind. First, you stepped up on the low one to the left, then it was a big pull to the second one on the right, and easy on up to the flat one near the top, where you could lean back against the trunk, watch clouds run through the leaves, and fool both your brothers when they called, “Haa-rree. Haa-ree, you get over here,” and couldn't find you.
“No one ever said you were the brightest star in the universe,” Lenny was saying, “but now we know you’re a dishonest son-of-a-bitch on top of your mental impairments. What in the hell do you think you’re doing? You drive this company into the ground and then you offer us this? I’ll take you to court. I will. Golden Valve is here to make money for all of us. And you insist on this ‘be nice’ crap.”
Harry should have developed ways of handling his older brother’s demeaning comments long before this, but maybe there was something in youngest brother genes that left Harry undefended. His own lawyer had examined their father’s will and declared that his brothers were without a legal leg to stand on. In addition, Sid Golden had left Harry in charge of all company decisions. Yes, at their after-hours meeting last week in Lenny’s fancy office, he’d backed down with Seymour and Lenny grilling him, turning the screws. They had no patience for those who tried, but did not succeed. So yes, he’d made promises because he craved their approval and because he wanted out of there, but the minute he was safe back in his own office downtown, he began to regain his senses and crawl out of his hole.
“You would cheat your own wife and sons out of their rightful inheritance to give money to this riff-raff who’ll waste it on Bud Light down at McKennys. You’ve lost it, Harry. We’re witnesses. We could have you declared incompetent.”
Lenny’s eyes were starting to bulge. He was a master at lawyerly calm and the unnerving cold-fish stare, but his eyes gave him away. The bulge meant he was off-center and about to get seriously ugly.
The scrape of adrenaline in Harry’s veins marked rising panic. Breathe. That was what Barbara would say. Just breathe way deep down. He inhaled and exhaled a few times, but his agitation did not abate. He needed to muster a defense against unexpected emotion. Hadn’t even teared up in half a century, but his shell had been forced open, leaving exposed a quivering tender mass. Befuddled as he was, he knew there were two choices—surrender or attempt to regain lost territory.
“You two never dropped any sweat over the company all these years,” he began, his voice weak and shaking with emotion. “Those people you’d like to cheat, those people out there on the floor working their butts off this very minute, they’re heroes, every one of them.”
Lenny sighed. “Don’t give me any sob stories. Please.”
Harry closed his eyes. Gain a footing here, will you.
“They have names, Lenny, and lives and children, and they’re hurting. How do you think Brad Nelson or Jimmy Turner are going to fare down at the unemployment office next winter? They’re turning fifty. Think they’ll find another decent paying job that’ll send their kids to school? How do you think Bob Serota and Perry Mayer will feel training twenty-five eager Chinese workers to do the jobs they’ve spent a lifetime learning? And doing it for a lousy dollar seventy-five an hour.”
Lenny was rolling his eyes.
“No, they didn’t go to Columbia and get a degree that gives them the right to lie and screw people, but they know a damn sight more about making a high-end valve and being a caring human being.”
Now Lenny was staring at the ceiling muttering, “Spare me.”
“Oh, right, they don’t count in your uptown universe. But make no mistake. It’s their skill that’s made this company what it is. It’s their skill that made money for you to buy that big-ass house you show off up on the lake. They deserve their severance packages. If I could find a way to give them your share—you know what, I’d do it. They earned it, not you.” He smiled at the idea. “I can hear Pa saying, ‘Not bad, Harry, right on.’”
Lenny pressed his lips together, eyes coldly appraising his little brother’s resolve. He was seeking a way to topple this touchy feely garbage.
“By the way,” Harry said, “you haven’t a leg to stand on in court and you know it. Pa left it to me to decide. Go kvetch elsewhere.”
“You always were a bloody fool. You’ll be sorry this time.” Lenny’s parting shot was clipped and ominous. He snatched the offending letter off the desk and glanced at Harry as he left, a look that contained, if not defeat, at least the sense of a temporary draw.
Harry crossed the hall to the bathroom and sat through a bout of loose bowels, then stood staring at the mirror, feeling dragged and bruised to his soul. Lenny could shame and humiliate him, always had been able to. “You’re a retarded goofball.” “Am not.” “Are, too.” Why did he care anymore what any of them thought? The old melancholy began to creep over him as the shadow ghost of inadequacy rose tall again, ready to unravel his universe.
He opened the bathroom door. Across the hall his intercom buzzed. It was Barbara's sympathetic voice. “Harry, it’s Miriam—body check.”
He stared at the flashing red button. Every day before lunch his wife telephoned in a report upon waking from her go-back-to-bed mid-morning nap. He closed his eyes, accosted by the idea of long days at home with Miriam’s depression. The red button continued its insistent rhythm. Let her sit imagining how busy he was and put off the rasp of her voice a few seconds longer into this impossible day.
“Yes, dear,” he sighed, resting the phone on his shoulder while he searched for papers to rattle. It was what he had said every day to reaffirm her existence, although he knew she had died a few years after their second son was born. As usual, he refused to ask how she was feeling. She told him in detail, anyway, in order to bring around the “Yes, dear.” He said he was very busy today, she could understand that. He would have to go. And he hung up. In forty years he had never before cut her off. He stared at the phone amazed at how easy it was.
Harry sat, head resting on his hand, tracing the brown stain on the blotter while he tried not to think about his hollow, tentative life. He sat until an ugly idea invaded his brain: He would make an ungracious exit, as if taking early lunch, then skip the farewell party. An ornery thing to do, but how could he face anyone while he was this choked-up with emotion? He’d embarrass the whole crew. Barney Lepler, more like a brother than his own brothers, would pat his back or, worse yet, hug him, and they would all turn away hoping to prevent a tearful implosion.
He scribbled a note for Barbara, wrote her a large check, put both note and check in an envelope, sealed it, then wished he’d signed it with love. Sighing, he retrieved the sax, left the briefcase, and edged toward the outer office. Peeking around the corner he saw Ernie and Barbara conversing behind the half-closed door to Ernie's corner office. She was blowing up and releasing balloons that half-filled the room. Grateful for the hum of the air conditioner, he opened the office door, forced a casual smile as Barney looked up, and hurried down the stairs, timing his steps to the syncopated kachung-kachung of the stampers.
Out on the street, he walked to the southern edge of the building and turned down the alley that separated Golden Valve from the canal, a forlorn little road once used by delivery trucks and long abandoned since they had built the loading docks on the north side. Patches of asphalt partly covered the original cobblestones and a proliferation of broken glass glinted like a Hansel-and-Gretel trail among the sun-baked weeds. Stopping to wipe his brow, he stared down the long canyon of abandoned brick buildings. 1902. The date Factory Row was built. Awful structures, really. Dinosaurs. Heat sinks in summer. Impossible to heat in winter. Long unused water turbines rusting in damp basements. Fire hazards, too.
Noisy whirlpools worried the surface of the water down here and a loud slap and surge of current filled his ears. Ten thousand times he’d turned to look down at the canal from his third-floor window, but in all his years he had never set foot on this road. A faded sign warned Absolutely No Swimming and, suspended at intervals, thin iron rods and yellowed lifesavers offered feeble assistance to anyone unfortunate enough to fall in. Walking faster, he tried without success to match the water's speed. It had bounded his waking life, pale blue in summer, black in winter, rowdy motion contrasting with the sound-proofed stillness of his beige office.
The sound of the stampers marked passing seconds steady as a heartbeat. He stopped to catch his breath near the entrance to the iron bridge that spanned the canal at the west end of the building. Hesitantly he toed the rusted open metal grate beneath which dark water rushed headlong. Now Harry was not a spiritual man, but he could have sworn he heard a voice urging him to cross over and frowned at the serendipitous command, thinking this an unlikely place for his unimagined future to begin. He stepped out onto the bridge feeling unbalanced, insubstantial, as if the cells of his body were about to come apart and levitate. A little woozy at the threatened disintegration, he gulped the moist fishy breeze that spun down the middle, making his eyes water. Shedding his suit coat, he set it on the saxophone case beside him, then leaned his elbows on the railing that in better days had been painted green—a man without a future on an unused bridge over a canal without a purpose that slipped away to rejoin a polluted river.
Out of his pocket he pulled the steel disc he’d salvaged that morning and turned it over and over. His fingers read it like Braille, memorizing the shape that formed the inside of a butterfly valve. His little gift to the world sat round and weighty against the palm of his hand, looking almost like the Eastern mandalas on the calendar Barbara had pinned up by her desk. He should have seen it sooner, the symptoms, her penchant for odd things that would lead her away from him. When he tipped his hand to let the ring slide off, it fell end over end, flashing as it sank straight down in spite of the current. Squinting, he thought he saw it resting there, a point of white light on the murky bottom. A strange thought pushed into his brain, a curiosity about whether a body would sink down like that or be carried swiftly away without a trace, leaving behind only one clue—an unplayed saxophone.
He closed his eyes. Was this why he’d been called to cross the bridge? Had some rebelliously heroic part of him thought such a dramatic ending possible? The stupor of despair made his body heavy and Harry sank to his knees, his cheek against the rough metal railing of the bridge that connected what was no longer his factory with its mirror image and future. No, the truth stood revealed: he hadn’t courage for such a disappearance. Was he seeking a leaving ritual, a way to gracefully go? That ain’t it, boychik. His father’s voice this time. More to do, you betcha. Get on with it. Harry looked up at the gauzy noon sky, never having heard voices before, and then had to smile at feeling such conversational intimacy with his irascible father.
A few moments later he began to notice a thinning of sound. One by one, machines shuddered into eerie silence. He looked up to see a line of workers throwing open the windows on the second floor to lean out, eyes on him, lips parted in horror. Transfixed, they watched his agony as if it were their own, as if they could save him from the future they shared. A voice yelled down, “No, Harry!” At the far end, Barbara’s face appeared. Her high voice began chanting, joined a moment later by a chorus: “Haa-ree! Haa-ree!”
He straightened his back and stood up to offer an embarrassed wave.
“Play us a tune, Harry Golden!” It was Barbara, the dark angel, commanding.
He stood, everything fuzzy and distant as half-remembered dreams. Then obediently he bent down with shaking hands to unclip the black leather case. Nested in green velvet lay gleaming curved brass pieces that took agonizing minutes to assemble. With the strap finally slung round his shoulder and fingers poised over the keys, he tongued the new reed, wetting and pressing. In the corner of his vision he saw the flash of gold company T-shirts Barbara had designed, and strong tanned arms stretching toward him to let loose a rainbow waterfall of balloons that floated down to bounce off the road onto the water where they passed under him like colored boats. There followed a confusion of bright streamers unrolling on the noonday breeze. Confetti rained like apple blossoms at the end of May in Gramma Rose’s backyard.
He pressed the smooth cupped keys up and down the horn, testing their resistance, fingers beginning to itch with old excitement. Every cell hummed with anticipation. Bending lips and tongue around the mouthpiece, he let go a breath and drew back, surprised at the blast of sound as a cheer of anticipation broke out above. Inhaling, he blew with intention, and the bright jazzy tones of “Stardust” poured out as easily as if he were seventeen again. No time to question the magic, he closed his eyes and swayed on the bridge, the sax catching the glint of noonday sun. Bending notes into improvisations that startled him, each better than the last, he let all the wasted music from the past flow through the brass curve of the horn, to soar and wail against the lonely brick canyon of Factory Row. It magnified sound better than any microphone, and he didn’t lose a beat in the rush of tunes: New Orleans, rhythm and blues, John Coltrane, he played it all. Above him the crew clapped, hooted, and called down for more.
One by one they left the open windows to stampede noisily down the stairs and pour out of the Broad Street entrance, tramping toward him down the narrow road, a giddy army of the dispossessed. As he left the bridge, they gathered around as if they had appointed him Pied Piper.
“Speech, speech,” someone yelled.
At a loss, Harry pushed the horn behind him and climbed up on the cement wall beside the canal. His first impulse was to apologize—for his incompetency, his mistakes, his inertia, for being their boss, for his whole existence. But they deserved better.
“Hey there, gang!” he heard himself call out, and they echoed back, “Hey there, Harry!”
“I’ll make this short and, I hope, sweet. I won’t be here on Monday, but you will. Not my choice, but theirs. I’m going to miss you and what we’ve done together, hanging on to something important down here on Broad Street. Sorta feels like family.” Cheers and fists punched the air. “We proved the old formula: small American company manufacturing a quality item can still work.” He laughed to himself. “Well, it works if big profit ain’t the main goal.” A roll of eyes. “Kinda makes you question the whole damn system, doesn’t it?” Harry took a deep breath to knowing nods. “Don’t quite know what I’ll do. ‘Rattle around,’ as Barbara says. But I’ve been thinking about what’s coming down for you and here’s what I know. You, I, and Allied Metals have negotiated severance packages that will stand. I promise you.” He saw Barney smile and knew the man had worried as he’d watched Lenny charge in. “I’m sorry for the mistakes I made. And I’m grateful—to all of you. You gave your skills and your hard hours.” He paused, his brain fog clearing. “Oh, and another thing. I’ll be going down to my lawyer’s office next week to draw up some papers. Those papers will divide a large portion of my profit from this deal into ninety-five pieces, one for each of you according to the number of years you’ve worked here. Now don’t get rambunctious ‘cause we’ve lost money and my profit ain’t the queen’s ransom. But it’s the least I can do to say you made us what we are—and what we are is something we can all be proud of.”
Thick, unbelieving silence. Mouths fell open. The crew looked one to another, then back at him. Embarrassed, he stepped down as the thrill of possibility worked its way through the crowd. Barbara pushed forward to throw her arms around him and kissed him full on the mouth. They faced each other with flushed smiles, then were jostled apart by others pressing forward, trading fist bumps and high fives.
Big Mortie lifted Harry and his horn up onto his shoulders and marched down toward Broad Street. He started to blow again, rocking out in staccato notes, channeling their joy, playing like a man possessed as work boots clattered on the cobblestones.
Jimmie MacDonald, who played bagpipes in the army band, performed a Highland jig as Harry slid into “Amazing Grace.” Alvin Minney, youngest and blackest of the crew, flung out his arms, and bouncing up and down, hip-hopped his way forward, kicking out long legs while the others clapped. Jan Kowalski grabbed muscled Tony Radoni, aka The Italian Stallion, and the two danced a ridiculous roundabout polka, crashing through the crowd. Shelly DeFries jumped up on the concrete wall and shimmied a rolling belly dance to howls and yips of approval as Harry slid into a Middle Eastern riff.
Harry kept finding tunes he didn’t know he knew—music that gave them all back their future. Some laughed, some sang, some grabbed the bouncing balloons and waved them over their heads, skipping like children. Others linked elbows and raised fists in a victory salute. Barbara led the parade, shouting about bread and roses, bread and roses. Pushed from behind, Harry guided them on a pilgrimage, everyone content to follow their dreams through the hazy summer afternoon.
At the corner, Barney Lepler tried to herd the wild crowd, but they paid no attention and milled into Broad Street where car horns sounded as they stopped uptown traffic. At the bus stop, they crowded the empty C-2 bus to strap-hanging overcapacity and poured off at Riverside Park, where they called wives and children, who came to celebrate with picnic coolers and spread blankets on the grass in the forgiving afternoon shade of the tall oaks. All eyes turned to the band shell as they waited for Harry Golden to get up the courage for his reappearance.