The Controller

“Everyone likes Gwen,” exclaimed Marion, the accounts payable clerk. “I don’t know how anyone couldn’t like her. It would take a mean sort of person.” “For sure,” added Tina whose desk was across the aisle from Marion. In front of Marion sat Jill, who upon hearing the conversation strained her eyes hard to the paper in front of her in an effort to concentrate away from the others. It didn’t work.

“She doesn’t talk about her family much,” added Jeanne who was sitting at her desk behind Marion. “Yeah, but at least she isn’t like Brad talking about his brother the boxer every day Tina grumbled. “God, a day doesn’t go by and he has to tell us what his stupid brother is doing.” “Hey, did you see that one guy on tv last night who was singing through the hole in his throat? I didn’t think anyone could do that” said Jeanne.

“I would do that if it got you women to work for a few minutes” said Dave the Controller, an elected official whose presence was scorned by every woman in the building and so by the men as well. “At least I don’t have to get elected just to be somebody,” said Marion with a look of satisfaction. “Who are you?” asked Dave. A vicious sequence of images into thought rose along with the blood in her cheek before she said in a halting voice “I am a mother, Sunday School teacher, and a union foreman. I achieved all of those things with hard work and dedication toward my community.”

In the moment he gave a blank stare he realized she hadn’t mentioned being a wife, and being a mother didn’t necessarily mean she was a good person, that Sunday school teacher is more of a privilege since her church had plenty of volunteers for the privilege of having others seeing them doing it, as for union foreman, well unless she was a transvestite…”I am glad for the community,” Dave said and walked to his office with a cup of coffee.

Dave has been elected Controller for the city of Hicks Falls for four straight terms. After high school he had worked as a bus boy, a drywall finisher, cemetery plot salesman, roofer, and factory worker before he married Leslie VanHertzfeld. Her father had been a City Commissioner for thirty years before being found dead in an alley of a dubious city neighborhood. The death was officially ruled a heart attack by the coroner. Apparently Mr. VanHertzfeld and Ted Wormke, third ward commissioner had just left a meeting with neighborhood “representatives” and the two had parted ways to their respective cars but Commissioner VanHertzfeld never made it to his car.

Leslie’s aunt Marcy Mabritch held chairs on the Council of the Arts, Lady’s Literary Guild, and the City Historical Society. Her father had been Mayor for thirty years, and her grand father for twenty. She insisted Dave get his feet wet in local politics by running for City Controller, a position that oversaw all payments made by the City. It was a politically important position created to give the public the sense of being represented, of having one of their own look after their interests. Of course, most people never quite seemed to know the details of the duties performed by the Controller but simply accepted the slogan “citizen’s representative in government.” As many voters were baffled about voting for a Controller as there were baffled about voting for a Drain Commissioner.

Dave’s father had suggested police work, but he wasn’t interested in a job that required intricate attention to detail. His imagination was far too active for security and writing tickets. When pressed to remember details he had a hard time because his mind was always amusing itself like Thurber’s, in and out of attention, and just staying tuned in long enough to perform some manual task or function that his mindless body couldn’t do itself. When Dave told his father that he was thinking about going to college to study literature his father’s response was “oh, that’s real mature. God. Of all the stupid things. Whaddayou gonna do with literature, tell a poem to the foreman when he tells ya to get to work? Dammit. I still say the best thing you could do is go into the army. The sergeant would have yer ass. Make a man outta ya.” Of course, there was the bad back and withered leg which his father was unwilling to acknowledge. And that made it preposterous to join the army. There was no use arguing unless he wanted to be mean to his father. And it gave Dave no satisfaction to point out that he had no reason to be ignorant of determinant causes. That the only problem between he and his father was his father’s insisting on dismissing them. It only judged him unworthy of recognition for his existence. And for what cause, that it were better to be a low wage working stiff than a clerical worker?

Dave met Leslie’s aunt Marcy Mabritch on a drywall job he had taken so he didn’t have to move back in with his father after yet another insane argument over reading books all the time instead of doing something outside. She had a twenty foot high cathedral ceiling in her entertainment room to be refinished and Dave arrived one day to put together scaffolding and sand off the old finish. Ms. Mabritch was taken with Dave’s tall, slim and dark figure in a t-shirt and found some things to do around the house so she could keep an eye on him. She found out he read a lot, and was decent at drawing, but not great. He had an active imagination and told wonderful stories about the simplest things. She concluded his mind simply needed to be redirected to more productive means. One morning
Leslie helped her aunt bring items in after shopping and when she said goodbye to her aunt she noticed Dave working above them on the scaffolding. The dust coated the muscles of his arms and shoulders and she was reminded of a model of a Greek statue. Aunt Marcy saw the look in her eyes.

After Dave had finished sanding off the old ceiling a few days had passed and no one came to finish the job. So Ms. Mabritch called Pete, the owner and asked when it would be finished. When Pete told her he would have to look into it Ms. Mabritch made it clear she was not happy with the delay. Next day Pete came personally with a crew at 730AM. When Ms. Mabritch saw that Dave wasn’t among the finishers she was disturbed. “Where is the young man that was here before?” she asked with a demanding look.

“He is on another crew today” said Pete. “He hasn’t the skill to finish up.”

“How much skill does one need to mix and put mud on a wall?” asked aunt Marcy. Pete was a big guy and an asshole. He was used to telling people what to do and not having people give it back. Still, he had enough sense not to let his face show personal insult.

“It may not seem like much, but it takes practice and we just don’t have the time to stand around while he tries to do something that one of us can do like that.” And Pete snapped his fingers.

Quickly sizing up the situation Aunt Marcy said “I am sure he will do just fine cleaning up after you men after you are done doing your job so quickly. You do your job quickly and he does his job quickly. Quickly quickly quickly.”

“I thought that is what you wanted?” said Pete.

“Of course,” said Aunt Marcy raising her voice a little in exasperation. “If you had come days ago you could’ve taken your time and done a good clean job, but now my house has been covered up for two weeks and I cannot enjoy myself in my own home. Now you are going to slop all over my house and it just won’t do. Are you going to send that young man to clean up after you are done? Every day when your crew is done I want you to send that young man out to clean up after you so I can live a decent life in my own house. Is that too much to ask?”

“One of us can clean up today, Mrs. Mabritch, and I will make sure someone cleans up every day.”

“No, you don’t understand” said aunt Marcy obstinately, “I want you to send that young man who was here before. I once knew his mother and need you to send him here for personal reasons. Do you understand?” Pete couldn’t ask what those matters were. It wasn’t his business. And it was Marcy Mabritch. So he had to send Dave. He didn’t think of why the woman would want him to send Dave in particular. He was preoccupied with trying to forget that the woman made assertive demands and he wasn’t used to being talked to like that in front of his crew. The sound of Pete’s croaking voice saying “yes Ma’am” was too absurd for there not to be a hushed snicker or two.

Mrs. Mabritch didn’t know Dave’s mother. In fact, no one had known Dave’s mother. She had died of cancer when Dave was four. After that he stayed with his paternal grandparents. His grandmother got him off to school and talked to him about his aspirations and provided the parental guidance and attention he could never expect from his father. She was a simple woman given to sacrifice and duty. A catholic who didn’t fathom any aspired calling to artistic expression. And to her, religion and duty to family superseded any personal involvements with life. But she seemed to like to be separated from grandfather as much as possible. The Pope, the priest and the nun told her about god. You need not think about it for yourself. You were supposed to be a man, and that meant being responsible for a family. To her, if a man couldn’t be responsible to a family logically it would follow that he could not be responsible enough to care for himself. And what good what it do for a man to live alone? Famous writers had wives too. She had taken up the arguments of his father.

His grandfather died a few years after his mother and so his father moved into the farmhouse as well. His father and grandmother hinted at Dave taking over the farm and being a farmer since he was young, but that was never something Dave would consider. Even as a child he was bothered at times with nerve tingling in his legs. At the age of twenty doctors would show him x rays to confirm damage to his spine as the result of a fall from the roof of the barn when he was eight. From his tractor Dave’s father had seen him fall but denied it any significance and turned his head back to the plow. He harangued Dave for fabricating stories about his back so much that one day Dave bellowed back “I won’t give any more thought to working this farm, no matter how little the work. I cannot do the daily duties and that is that.” Dave didn’t need to hear the obligatory “oh, shit, you don’t know what pain is, boy. You just want an easy life where everybody else serves you” but he heard it anyway.

Now, there are those who contend that a person can do anything he sets his mind to, as if that is all there is to it. No social limitations, no personal limitations, no mental or physical, environmental, genetic, organizational demands or considerations whatsoever. But certainly there is the knowing of the way others perceive you and letting yourself be defined by those limitations, such as the task you perform for money, your motivations for doing so, the title of your role in an organization. Much of what is done, the interaction we have is defined by how we are perceived by others whom we would want to be of benefit to us. And for Dave all that kept a person from walking away from a relationship or commitment was the overwhelming desire to do something else. The mind fits a mask of narrative so that you can see behind and in front, the past and the future, rewrite the narrative of what better defines you now then it did yesterday and the day before.

Dave had five or six notebooks of poems he began writing at the age of sixteen. When he was twenty five he started sending poems to small press magazines, finding a few here and there who found his imagistic dada style intriguing enough to publish alongside the unconventional, schizophrenic poetry that throws disombobulated images at the paper. He spent most of his time in his room or at the library which brought stern remarks from his father about his motivations. The remonstrances of his father would occasionally be parroted by his grandmother, despite her frequent moments of tenderness. Dave just couldn’t understand why it mattered to others what he did with his life. As he saw it, he found women attractive, but could not think of sacrificing himself for one. A woman was fully capable of living on her own without a man. And he was capable of living by himself. But more important to Dave as an individual was that he was constantly anxiety ridden, always on the defensive. The sort of person who just doesn’t enjoy the casual company of others. He read an existentialist text that explained that he couldn’t experience lengthy interaction with others because he felt so acutely their presence. That made him feel a little better about himself.

Dave spent his time reading philosophy and writing stories, essays, and poetry. He often took a chair out to the woods behind the house and would start to draw things. But he was too impatient for the study of objects and he would petulantly make expressive sweeping and angular strokes as if to condense a hundred brush strokes into one. He played guitar and sometimes made up his own songs to the poetry he wrote. When his grandmother mentioned he made up his own songs his father laughed with scorn “Huh, what, you gonna do that now?” Dave just liked playing music. He never mentioned doing it for a living. And even if he wanted to have been a musician he could’ve cared less what his father would have thought of it by then. They had been enemies since Dave was born. Dave didn’t quite understand why, but he always felt like he was supposed to be guilty of something that involved not doing for others, others who were making demands of you telling you that you are more determined than free. There was no question that Dave was indolent, irascible, irresponsible, dreamy, and dismissive of others, but he needed to take a psychiatrist’s advice and get away from his father.

So he took an apartment in town and began studying for his bachelor’s degree in Humanities awarded from a distance learning college. It was three very happy years studying literature, if it wasn’t so happy to be a laborer for three years. It wasn’t that he found the labor distasteful, he simply refused to imagine himself an old man getting up with a rickety body at 530AM every morning to perform movements all day that led to taking too many pain reliever pills. He didn’t care to do that to himself.

He began dating Leslie a week after she had first seen him on the scaffolding in Aunt Marcy’s house. Under Leslie’s leadership he had switched to a Bachelor’s Degree in business one semester from earning a Bachelor’s Degree in Humanities. Dave’s active imagination allowed him to assume the role of a William Carlos Williams, or a Wallace Stevens, a successful man and poet. Both respected by others and by himself. It was a fantasy he wasn’t so sure would last. And he hurried to complete the program before he grew tired of it.

When the suggestion was made to run for Controller he couldn’t have been more elated. It would require few hours of his time, and he would have time to read and write. And that is what he did. Sort of. He began keeping regular office hours and soon was a daily presence walking to and from his office with a cup of coffee. He had little in the way of official capacity to perform so he closed his door and read philosophy, Nietzsche, Kafka, Sartre, Camus, the Greeks, the church fathers, Hume and Berkley, Plato and Aristotle.. He read art and literary theory, World History, American novels. He would spend a few hours at lunch with a newspaper and a beer, return to the office and snooze on the couch while reading poetry.

A knock on the door brought Dave out of a dream he had of living with the Pueblo Native Americans. He was aware that he was a Pueblo Native and aware that he was making note of what it was like to be a Pueblo Native. When he heard the knock on the door he wasn’t so sure he wasn’t in a pueblo. His brain was processing the association of the dream with the huts of a Tibetan community he had stayed with once on vacation when the knock came again. “Mr. Moroney, do you have a moment?” It was the voice of a woman. He went to the door and Gwen looked at him with a rehearsed smile. She was only five foot tall, fiftiesh, long gray hair, with nondescript blouse and long skirt. Other than that Dave took little notice of her. Not that he wasn’t attentive when he talked with her, he just didn’t seem to make much of the appearances of the others. Not as much as others seemed to make of him and each other anyway. She needed his signature on something because the deputy controller, who was the office administrator wasn’t available. He shut the door and looked out the window toward the river. It was only 2:30. He could go for a walk before having to go home. Just then his phone rang.

While walking home from work the night before Gwen found a publication of local escorts and went to bed fantasizing on the pictures. When Dave answered his door she was startled to recognize the similarity between him and an imaginary lover from the magazine she had found. It made an ever so slight snicker on her face which Dave misinterpreted for something that involved her perception of him. She appeared as officious, yet cordial as possible. As soon as she heard Dave’s door shut behind her she dropped the facsimile of cordiality from her face and fell into her chair in disgust. Luckily, she sat in the last office in the corner and rarely did anyone come back to visit even for an official reason. The bad thing about it was that someone could appear in the doorway without warning. Her job was to pour over bar reports looking for minute changes in percentages and decimal points and her office was piled from floor to ceiling with five inch thick reports she had printed for the past two years. She used a visitor’s chair for a ladder to reach a report on the top of the pile. It was unlikely anyone else would see her the rest of the day so she resigned herself to her imagination.

She was a spinster. She was proud of it. She always made sure everyone knew she wasn’t going to put up with abusive men. She knew the aggressive stance would draw attention away from the fact that she didn’t have a man. She simply didn’t want one, but without one she was prey to the meanness of others in social interaction. Relatives and married women were jealous that she wasn’t suffering and talked about what her “problems” might be that she isn’t married or even dating men. She giggled slightly when she thought of what she would be doing in bed that night, and didn’t care if others suspected it. Everyone did it. Absent a man it is what works. And is far more agreeable. Still, you had to make an appearance with the crowd, make arrangements with convention. She couldn’t help sitting at her desk and imagining what it was like to be a man.

“I don’t know, she looks and acts kind of like a man” Dave said on the phone to Leslie. “She is a plain woman everyone seems to like well enough, or at least no one seems to dislike her enough to talk about her much. What? She talks about the things she does with her parents and a sister on the weekends. Other than that I don’t picture her going anywhere, and she never mentions doing anything or going anyplace. Why do you ask about her?”

“Aunt Marcy says a friend knows her from quite few years ago. Says she took money as his mistress once a week or something.”

“An arrangement?”

“Apparently. The thing is she was fifteen at the time.”

Dave just sighed.

“Dave?”

“Huh?” he said with undue harshness for which he quickly apologized.

“I will send you a list of items I need you to get at the store. Make sure you get everything.

“Ok.”

The choice wasn’t his. And he also wanted to show Aunt Marcy he was playing ball after a series of unfortunate episodes when he lost his train of thought while talking with her, a capital offense. He picked up the phone and called the director of human resources. “Yeah, Hal, tell me, is it possible to shift the cost center position over to the budget department?”

“I suppose we could work it out. Why, what’s up?”

“We’ve been discussing eliminating the job. Why don’t we offer the employee early retirement and if she doesn’t accept it shift the position over to budget. Budget can phase out the work next year. It’s 1992 and we haven’t really needed that position since the last bargaining agreement. What do you think?”

“All right Dave. It’s your call.”

In her office Gwen drifted in and out of Dave’s embrace, then kissing a transvestite, then a woman who looked and dressed like a man.

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