Frank lay in bed paralyzed. The room was still, the sheets frayed from decades of tossing and turning. Sunday was laundry day, it was Tuesday, no, Wednesday now. It was Wednesday morning. Quarter past four in the morning.His father would say “Once you hear a delivery truck, it’s not night time anymore.” If the birds would get their shit together and unionize, maybe then it would be them who decided when the morning started. But they didn’t rent fresh blues from Cintas. “Delivery men bring the morning” punctuated the bit. Then, his father, a sociology professor at the nearby University, would put on his patched tweed blazer and drop him off at Thomas Edison elementary on the way to Campus.
Frank thought about the Orvis Edition 1995 Jeep Grand Cherokee sitting in the garage, a marbled neon tennis ball dangling from the ceiling, resting just barely on top of the windshield, safeguarding the flats of Diet Coke that lined the back wall of the room. He could get in the car and go…to a roadside diner? That didn’t sound worth it. If he woke up his wife, he would have to come up with a lie even more boring than the truth, and they hadn’t spoken in a week or two. If he walked past his son’s room and he was doing something wrong, he would have to decide if it was worth doing some parenting. He decided to stay put for the time being.
The birds beat the garbage men today. He remembered that it was garbage day, and he had not remembered to remind Kyle to take out the recycling. The Village had begun levying shame fines on households who refused to separate plastics and cans. Minerva Millgrove, the Village board leader for six years running, fancied herself a character played by Alan Alda, if Alan Alda were a severe lady in a brilliantly clashing silk floral blazer who raised a shitload of money for Ross Perot in the 90’s. Her sudden interest in recycling was about control, not the environment, but it chuffed Frank to hear her side remarks at local quorums needing “more research” before she held conclusive beliefs about the realities of global climate change, all while levying fines in the name of sea turtles. Frank really liked the idea of Sea Turtles.
Kyle’s door was ajar, and his father let it inch open by guiltily nudging the door open with his big toe. As it gained momentum and swung open the hall light illuminated just enough of the room to show it recently cleaned with a made bed and no son in it. Outside, he heard the rustle of plastic bins. Finally making his way into the kitchen he found his son quietly re-entering the house with the same look that a kid has on woopie cushion packaging. “There’s coffee on the way!” He whispered quietly and excitedly, raising his father’s suspicions even higher than they already were. For a moment he wondered if his son was going to murder him, and move on to the bedroom. For a particularly ghoulish millisecond he wondered if he would leave his Mother’s sleep apnea machine on or not.
A close school friend of Kyle’s died a month ago, and he had gone from speaking to his parents infrequently to near radio silence. Karen insisted this was “part of the process” so he wondered what the fuck it meant that he was now doing what he had been assigned to do but failed to for years, and, of course, if it was all just a ruse and he was about to be murdered by his own son with an axe or whatever the three pronged sharp version of a trowel was called.
Kyle was posted in the kitchen, hands shaking, keeping a loose grip on a Sea Turtle mug, pouring a cup of coffee that would wake a 35 year old man, but what, in his father’s mind, should be the rough equivalent to crystal meth for a 15 year old boy. He looked up only a bit startled, quickly telling his father “Catch you on the floppy-zip!” flung his mug into the sink and vanished out the back door, throwing his head out first while still catching the screen door before it cracked open. Nice kid. It was six in the morning and he didn’t have to be at school until half past eight, since he had quit jazz band. He quit jazz band, right? Jazz guitar seemed like a losing proposition from age 14-21. Either which way, he was happy to see him so willing to enter the backyard in the dark again. He had been particularly stubborn about avoiding “that whole scene” after seeing a family of raccoons out there a few months ago. “They own the night!” he’d insist whenever chores might have taken him into the darkness just beyond the porch light.
The sun came up over the road as Frank cruised to work. It was the time of the morning when your cover is blown. There’s an anonymity and peace before the dawn breaks that lots of writers, poets, secretaries, mountain men, religious types, and food vendors like to wax on about. Then everyone else wakes up, and you have to put your emotional pants on. Late nights belong to the unabashedly pained. People looking for excitement, evening their odds with drugs and alcohol. Even if nothing interesting happens, which it hasn’t the night, week, month, or year before, they won’t feel anything by the time they see the inevitability coming up on the horizon. As they go to bed, the early risers sneak past them, our guy Frank being one of them. They revel in the stillness and isolation, imagining pockets of magic here and there because there’s no one to tell them otherwise. This bubble bursts with the sun, and early morning commuters who don’t believe in magic late at night or early in the morning, or maybe at all.
He greeted the golden light that spilled on to the maintained asphalt that carved a path from his village to the highway by cranking his stereo up, blaring Boz Scaggs blazing hot 1976 LP Silk Degrees. His car phone interrupted the moment just as he belted out the chorus to “Lido Shuffle”. It was Sheryl, a fellow operative at The Mystic Octagon Serpent & Shield, or M.O.S.S.
She was inquiring about the roundtable torch lighting scheduled for later that evening.
“Operative Twelve hasn’t been holding up his end of the deal on his latest missions. I say we see how he reacts with a sword to his throat.”
Frank agreed, but sometimes wondered if Sheryl hurt more than she helped with her devotion to the cause. Her tone and inclinations were perfect, but the tenuous nature of a secret society that rules the globe in secret begs for more nuance. He didn’t want to be the tone police, but the traditions of M.O.S.S. leaned toward the Wasp-y and that suited him just fine.
“Agreed Sheryl, He’s gotta go.”
“I beg your pardon, Agent Gumbo?”
“Sorry Agent Grasslands, I lost myself for a minute”
Frank caught himself rolling his eyes as these words left his lightly-mustached upper lip. The Agents hung up quickly thereafter, just as the he pulled into the office park. Tonight a brash young operative would have to die. But first, he had to deal with Bryan. He wished his codename was more fitting than Agent Gumbo. Agent Gumbo? He ate Gumbo once. He thought it was too spicy.
When Frank started his tenure at the International Bureau of White Guys, he was an intern at the main office in downtown New York. He worked his way up from the cramped basement, where he was the entirety of the “Complaints and Grievances” department, to Vice President of Acquisitions. The rocky two year stint as VP of A taught Frank some harsh lessons about his ceiling and his stomach. He couldn’t stomach what it took to raise his professional ceiling, and so he was moved to a suburban outpost. A company man, perhaps the last of a dying breed, he managed the day to day operations of the Complaints and Grievances division, which now resided away from headquarters, beyond a sleepy tree lined alcove, under flickering halogen lights.
The mistake Frank initially made, was he took his job to be a real one. The six foot by 7 foot closet that housed the original C & G department at headquarters was always intended as an inward facing metaphor, a message to the employees of the IBWG on the consideration they gave any detractor of any stripe. This never struck Frank as fair, but it was a foothold at a fancy job. At first, he was worried that his father, always a vocal advocate for honest work, would hate his new employer. On the contrary, he had been impressed, and though Frank couldn’t see it at the time, a little intimidated. At the age of fifteen, you could have told him that his father would disown him if he got into advertising, and he would have believed you. Six years later, he found himself hearing the same man say “Oh that was just some stuff I said when the economy wasn’t fucking tanking”.
Now, three decades into his professional life, he entered the suburban auxiliary office he had moved to some 15 years ago. It had been framed like a promotion, as anything but an out and out firing is, but he knew better. Frank remembered the sticky anticipation in the office the day he walked in to discuss his future. A new bald man he didn’t know sat in one of those fancy Herman Miller jobs that had been pulled in from the conference room on his side of the desk, and got up to motion him into the smaller guests chair. His boss remained seated, and didn’t get up to shake his hand at the end.
The Complaints and Grievances department had truly blossomed since Frank’s fateful first day interning in the city. Regardless of what his bosses might now think of him, he came to work every day in an office that he himself built, sort of (more on that later). Reception had his coffee ready, and the security team always laughed at his jokes. He found that auxiliary help was more relatable than the teeming mass of employees he oversaw, even if this teeming mass was in reality no more than 200 people. Still, the uniformed men who vigilantly sipped coffee by the entrances and exits and all along the perimeter of the grounds, were his people. He’d often been left with front desk security when his own father had to take him to work as a child. Now, he felt like he was a blue collar guy himself, despite his station, and didn’t mind saying so often and loudly.
Because of C & G’s humble beginnings as a broom closet, Frank had no problem claiming the title “Self Made Man” as he surveyed the vast suburban layout he was at the helm of. From day one, the gleaming marble halls of the International Bureau of White Guys enchanted him more than any one ideology ever could have. And he had been a skeptic. Fresh off two years as an undergrad at a top twenty academic school and a top ten party school, he came equipped with the professional advantage of being able to hold his alcohol, and the severe disadvantage of asking too many pointed questions.
Answers to those questions, Frank found, were not answers at all, but dismissals that fell on the laurels of successful tradition, the success being evident in the beautiful building he was interning in, and had dared to question. Looking around the great hall, this made sense. It was gilded, but not 1800’s French gilded. It was the sum of a great many old families contributions, that was now run like a successful company, not unlike many great western institutions. Chiseled into the granite walls as you walk in it reads; “In order to succeed in this world, you must believe in this world.” and as soon as Frank took this maxim to heart, his stock within the institution began to soar. Even now, decades later, he stretched to establish his own microcosm in this spirit. He rediscovered all over again upon his relegation to the ‘burbs that the ethos of the organization were hard to apply fairly or well to life outside of their bubble, or as it was referred to within the hallowed building, the “Mind Fort.”
These efforts included but were in no way limited to encouraging open carry permits among employees, which perturbed their original security company, whose union had roots with the local police union and was nearly as strong. They didn’t see the job of their guards getting any safer with an armed client, but like water finds the groove, Frank found a security agency through a compatriot (who owned several such mall cop enterprises) that was happy to yield to any client requests, and hired no union members. The original company picketed until the police force from which their union was formed physically removed picketers from the grounds.
His already disdainful bosses were confused and skeptical of this brash behavior at first, but soon came to see the wisdom in their “intellectual” arm getting a populist makeover. Things that were once deemed crass became bedrock elements of the International Bureau of White Guys. These “down home” practices only permeated the bedrock of the institution as words on whiteboards in presentations and monthly fried chicken fridays anyways, so fuck it.
The conversation that had taken place as Frank pulled into work haunted him well into his morning. It wasn’t just the substance of the call but the timing; Agent Grasslands had thrown off his mojo, and he parked out of what he liked to call “the shade zone”. Hours later he knew it was too late, and his car was now well over 100 degrees in the interior. He’d have to open the doors so he didn’t sweat out his chinos on the way to the meeting later.
The secret meetings helped perforate his days and nights into something that resembled difference. If he didn’t have them, it would just be one long slog where his child kept growing, but even the excitement of child rearing soon becomes drudgery. The smiling face of a small child becomes the insolent stare of a pre teen, and soon they don’t talk to you at all. He tried to keep things exciting with Karen, but he worried that he didn’t like excitement at all, and that she could tell. Even their vacations had become ordered and mundane. Leaf peeping in the fall, on the way to the LL Bean headquarters. A snowshoe tour through the Ben & Jerry’s cemetery in the back of their factory. He had once noticed and then forgotten that most of their trips ended at a mythic corporate headquarters, but didn’t think much of it in the moment then either. He liked it, and felt bad about liking it, so he tried to just forget about the things he liked.
M.O.S.S. was getting to be a bit of a slog as well. Did Agent Grasslands really wanted to kill Dan, er, Operative Twelve? The operative name thing was starting to bother him more and more, and he hadn’t been quiet about it. After all these years he still didn’t understand why an all powerful secret organization needed code names. Criminals who rob banks need protection from each other, for “Criminals who surf the waves of the global economy fear only Poseidon”. He remembered reciting an open letter to the group hardly a year ago, it had ended with that Poseidon line. Just as the words began to hang in the air, Dan had let out a noisy, wet fart. “Let’s fucking kill Dan tonight” Frank muttered to no one in particular. His office was empty and still. It looked out on the yellow and brown expanse of tile.
11: 46 AM
Remembering Dan’s wet fart had put an awful taste in Frank’s mouth that had previously been salivating over thoughts of a quality hoagie. Aaron Sorkin once had an alcoholic character describe the joys of a heavy bottomed glass, the perfect receptacle for scotch. That’s how Frank felt about the weight of a particularly prized hoagie in his hands. The surprising heft of the ingredients bound only by bread and wax paper. The perfect receptacle? His mouth. Now ripe with hoagie anticipation, perhaps the only true form of titillation he could still savor, that is; self denial until lunch time, was gone. The mouthfeel of the hoagie in his mind’s eye was now coated in the memory of a belittling fart.
Frank thought all of this whilst standing in the parking lot, sun beating down on his head, as lower back sweat began to pool at the elastic of his Jockeys. He realized he had been pumping the door of his car instead of just opening it to let some of the heat out while the AC got going, as if he was wafting out a bad smell. He didn’t know he’d been this worked up about Dan. Who the fuck becomes an operative, only to stick with their trainee number anyhow? Fucking dipshit. Not really knowing how he’d gotten himself so worked up in the first place, he swung his large frame into the car, grabbing a bit of the roof, which badly burned his hand, causing him to slip, and rocket himself even harder onto the scalding hot leather of the driver’s seat. He slammed the door in time to mask his howling yelps of pain, which only worsened as he gripped the steering wheel all too briefly, only to be burned again. He peeled out of the parking lot, bound for a hoagie, screaming at the top of his lungs.