Joe Cappello

Posted on January 30, 2012

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Free Spaces

Ted found Andy at the elevators bent over the window ledge, his arms supporting him, his shoulders hunched. As he approached, he could see Andy was breathing heavily, the unbuttoned sides of his bl ue blazer moving in and out in response to each breath. Ted slowed down as he got closer not wishing to startle his already rattled colleague. He moved alongside him and gently placed his hand on the back of his neck.

“Hey, Number One, you alright?”

“Fine, I’m fine,” Andy said, beads of sweat visible on his pale forehead.

“What happened in there?”

“I’ll be all right,” Andy said.

“Are you sure, old Number One? You look a little green.” Ted sat on the ledge next to him.

“That’s a good sign, it’s my favorite color. And stop calling me Number One.”

“But I’m Number Two. You have to be Number One or people will think something is missing,” Ted said.

“Look, we’re not on the Starship Enterprise. I may be the senior guy, but it doesn’t matter when we’re trying to sell a customer.”

“Understood, Number—.” Ted caught himself. “I think it sounds great, that’s all.”

“It sounds like bathroom humor, so please…” Andy rubbed his forehead and closed his eyes.

The company paired the two together after a sales meeting five years ago. Ted was the younger of the two, more relaxed and informal, tall, lanky with salt and pepper hair and a look like he was about to deliver a one liner. Andy’s hair was a distinguished-looking gray; he was smooth in his dress and comfortable around spread sheets and cost proposals, a virtual rock around clients. That is, until his meeting today with Billy Zahn.

Doris Devaney rounded the corner by the elevators and walked directly toward Ted and Andy. She was wearing a gold cheetah print blouse with a black pleated skirt and nylons to match. She walked up to Ted and Andy and held out two reports bound in clear plastic covers.

“Doris,” Ted said standing up. “Look, I’m sorry we walked out so—“

“Not to worry,” Doris said handing the reports to him. “Mr. Zahn needed a break anyway. Give him about 10 minutes then come back into the conference room.” She gave the pair a wink as she turned and walked away.

Ted gave a report to Andy, who was standing now, more certain of his footing than a few moments ago. The only sounds audible were the ping of the opening and closing elevator doors and the turning of pages as the two men focused on the reports.

“Wow,” Andy said without looking up. “Fantastic.”

“Yup,” Ted said. “Specs are all in order, requirements are clear, Classic Billy Zahn.”

“Best purchasing agent I’ve ever met. It’s too bad.”

“I’d sure like to get this business. “ Ted looked at Andy. “What’s too bad?”

“That he, you know…doesn’t have too long.” Andy looked past the elevators and into an open office door where the sun was shining on a large potted plant to the right of the doorway.

He remembered a meeting he had with Billy Zahn three months ago when that plant was about half its size. Andy didn’t notice that Billy didn’t quite fill out his chair as he sat behind his desk reviewing a proposal Andy had presented to him. He seemed distracted, as he fumbled with the pages and even became irritated at one point shuffling several pages back and forth as though he lost his place and couldn’t quite find it again. Andy was busy looking at a photo Billy had on his desk.

“Hey, that’s your oldest, right?” He pointed to the brunette with the large brown eyes in a track suit and gray baseball cap. Billy didn’t answer and while Andy was still looking at the photo, he abruptly got up and excused himself.

“I’ll have to get back to you on this,” he said. It wasn’t until a couple of weeks after his visit that Andy learned of Billy’s cancer from a colleague. Andy turned over the events of that meeting many times since that day. Why hadn’t he noticed Billy’s condition? It was his business to be more aware, more in tune with his clients, but this time with Billy, he simply missed it.

“Ready to go back in?” Ted’s voice snapped Andy from his recollection. He buttoned his blazer and checked to make sure every strand of gray hair was in its place. “Ready,” he said.

Billy was sitting in his chair as Doris stood next to him holding a glass of water. Billy took a pill from a bottle in front of him and popped it in his mouth as he twisted the cap back in place. Doris handed him the glass and smiled at Ted and Andy as they took their seats across from Billy. Two thumping gulps were followed by an audible “Ahhh.” He smiled at his visitors.

“Andy, my man. I never saw you quite like that before. What made you…you know…lose it?”

Doris took the pill bottle and walked out closing the door behind her.

“I don’t know, things felt close. I couldn’t breathe there for a moment,” Andy said.

“Right in the middle of your presentation.”

“I had it under control,” Andy said as Billy laughed.

“I could have finished…”

“Right,” Billy said.

“What, you never saw somebody hyperventilate before?”

“So that’s what they call breathing into a brown paper bag.”

“He would have kept going,” Ted said, “but we ran out of paper bags.”

The vertical blinds blocked the afternoon light dulling its brightness to a soft gray that cast a pall over the room. Billy tapped the surface of the table with two bony fingers as he sat back in his chair. He closed his eyes and Andy couldn’t help looking over at him as he readied his notes for the rest of the presentation. His lips curved downward in what appeared to be a wince, as he wrinkled his forehead and made an almost inaudible sound from deep in his throat. Andy wondered if he was in pain. But at that moment, Billy opened his eyes wide and grinned.

“Am I going to see a presentation or are you gonna’ start that breathing thing again?”

Ted hooked the laptop to the wall monitor and opened power point to the first slide. The bright blue color simultaneously lit up the room and drew Billy straight up in his chair. He was attentive to every slide Andy brought up from that point, asking what a line of text meant or what he was trying to show with an illustration. Andy eagerly obliged and their exchange grew more animated as the presentation progressed.

“So what you’re telling me is that after a one year contract, you’re gonna’ hit me with a price increase,” Billy said.

“Uh, uh, I didn’t say that. Here, let’s go back.” Andy clicked his mouse several times. “Here, see?” He walked over to the monitor and pointed to it. “After one year, the contract will be re-evaluated.”

“Right. You’re gonna’ raise my price.”

“No, not necessarily, we’re gonna’ look at material costs—“

“Then raise my price…”

“and labor costs….

“then raise my price…

“And if they’ve all gone up…” Andy paused as he looked at Billy.

“I’m gonna’ raise your price.” Billy thumped the table with his fist as he let out a laugh that sounded like a high pitched scream. Andy looked at Ted grinning as they watched Billy slam the table again and again.

“Go ahead, raise my price, one year, right?”

“That’s right,” Andy said. “One year.”

“Right.” Billy shook his head still laughing. “What the hell. Leave it alone. One year. I won’t even be here after one year.”

Andy felt the smile vanish from his face. He was suddenly aware of the lack of light in the room. Things started to feel close again. He wasn’t sure what to do with his hands, so he stuffed them in his pockets. He tried to say something but Billy cut him off.

“Free space!” Billy yelled. He grabbed a jar in the middle of the table and a small box next to it. He opened the box and retrieved a red translucent disc about the size of a dime. He held it close to his face and narrowed his eyes like he was giving an Indiana Jones evaluation of some long lost relic.

“This is one of those discs you use for bingo, you know, to cover up the numbers. You also use it to cover up the “Free Space” in the middle of the card.” Billy dropped the disc into a slot on the lid. “Every time something good or funny happens, like just now, I pop one of these into the jar.” Billy held up the jar and shook it around; it was about three quarters full.

“Isn’t that amazing? All those good times…I call them ‘Free Spaces’… in less than four months.” He put the jar down and raised his arms.

“Gentlemen, past times count, too, so let’s hear.” Billy folded his arms.” What do you remember about us that calls for a disc in the jar?”

Andy looked at Ted unsure of what to say. Ted put on his best “one liner” face as he winked at Andy.

“Alright,” Ted said. “I’ve got one. Remember that time the three of us went to the airport? We had to pick up one of our tech guys, he was going to explain the software for the 105 unit you were buying, remember?” Billy nodded. “Right, so we’re standing on the curb opposite baggage claim looking for him, when this foreign guy comes running up to Billy out of nowhere, must have mistaken him for someone else. He gives him a big hug, kisses him on both cheeks, then jumps into a cab and takes off.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Billy said.

“Then Billy yells after the cab…” Ted re-enacts the moment looking at the other end of the conference room, his left hand on his chest and his right hand next to his mouth. ‘…Will I see you again?’ “

Billy’s mouth made a wide capital “O” as he broke into a fit of laughter. He held out the box of discs to Ted.

“Oh, yeah, that’s what I’m talkin’ about. Please, do the honors.” Ted took a disc from the box and with a great flourish dropped it into the jar. Billy shook the jar, then looked at Andy.

“Okay, Andy, my man. You’re up.”

Andy felt confused, the conversation, surreal like there was something seriously wrong with the whole picture. He looked at Billy who sat there giddy raising his eyebrows and coaxing an answer from Andy by repeatedly waving his hand. He was a kid out with his best buds for the day happy despite what he had been through in the last few months and his bleak prospects for the future. Andy didn’t want to disappoint him.

“Well, this one time…the three of us were at lunch… “Andy shifted in his chair and the emerging recollection seemed to have a remarkable calming effect on him as it worked its way through mind and body. He continued with ease.

“Remember? The day Teddy decides to bust the waiter by ordering using his best Donald Duck voice.’

“That’s right,” Billy said pointing to Ted. “You did, didn’t you.”

“He did,” Andy said, “but what brought the house down for me was when Billy here looks at the waiter and says that he’ll have the same…also in a Donald Duck voice.”

“I did, that’s right.”

“We never knew you could do a Donald Duck imitation till then,” Ted said. “The waiter was floored.”

Discs flowed freely from box to jar as the trio recalled events from their past experiences together. Miscommunications and botched appointments, a cast of misfit characters including a salesman for Billy’s company who grew plants in discarded toilet bowls, and the screaming matches between Billy and Andy over orders.

“I remember one time telling Billy no problem your order was only three days late,” Andy told Ted. “The next day I get a cold pizza with a note from Billy…’No problem, it’s only three days late.’

Andy and Ted wiped moist eyes as they stood up still laughing and began packing up their items including laptop, cords and notes. Ted was busy checking his i-phone for any important e-mails he might have received when Andy noticed Billy standing in front of the windows cradling the Free Space jar in his arms. He had opened the blinds and was looking out the window. The afternoon sun created a hot spot on the gold lid of the jar that seemed to radiate on Billy’s face. He turned and smiled.

“Guys, uh…I should tell you. Next Wednesday’s my last day.”

Andy and Ted stopped what they were doing.

“Billy, I’m…uh…sorry,” Ted said.

“Don’t be,” Billy said. “I’ll send you an e-mail about my replacement, and don’t worry, it won’t be that guy with the toilet bowls. Besides, I’m gonna’ spend more time with my family.” He walked over to the table and grabbed another disc. He held it between his index finger and thumb as he raised it to the pair. “And that’s a good thing,” he said as he dropped it in the jar.

Ted shook Billy’s hand and left to pull the car around. Andy and Billy held out their hands but the gesture gave way to a mutual embrace. Andy didn’t think about whether this would be the last time he would see Billy or what the future would hold for him. All he knew was this moment and nothing else seemed to matter.

“I am proud to call you my colleague,” said Andy.

“I am proud to call you my friend,” said Billy.

Ted drove the company car as the pair made their way through the local streets and eventually onto the highway. They were running late for their next appointment, so Ted called and offered his apologies.

“We should be there about 3…3…” He looked at Andy, who opened and closed his hands three times.

“…30,” Ted said. “3:30. See you then,” He hung up the phone and looked at Andy.

“Thanks, Number One—Ooops,” Ted winced as he waited for Andy’s reprimand.

“Your welcome, Number Two. Now set a course for our next appointment and be quick about it.”

Andy took a disc out of his shirt pocket that he had taken from Billy’s office and tossed it into the car’s cup holder.

He laughed till his hair fell out of place.

***

Joe Cappello has worked in a manufacturing/office environment most of his career and has written short stories, plays and poetry about his experiences. Recent publications include, “Crossing the River Acheron,” appearing in the September 2011 online issue of Blue Lake Review and “The Game,” appearing in the September 2011, online issue of River Poets Journal (Reading Room). He invites you to read more of his work at: http://www.wordsearchers.org.

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