by The Inmate
Not enough information. That was the problem.
The Granger Building
That was it. No floor. No suite number. No phone number. Not even the city. How did it even get here? I did not want this kind of delivery on my last stop of the day, particularly to the largest building in downtown: I wanted to go home, eat a garlic pizza, drink some good red wine and watch a movie with my wife, not wander the halls and floors of the Granger Building trying to find a Sophia Williams. But I get paid by the delivery, not by the hour, so I didn’t want to come back on Monday. Plus, if I make my “next day” deliveries on the next day I get an extra ten dollars–no small amount in my economic world.
The Granger Building, I had read somewhere, possessed the oldest history in the city for buildings of its size. I don’t know how old or who built it or even any of the particulars of its existence, I just deliver there almost every working day of the year. No one else wants the downtown route or especially this building, but I’m used to it. I’ve been down here almost 10 years and I’ve learned some things: where the loading zones and loading docks are, which guards will let you bring a hand-truck through the lobby–which guards won’t, which businesses will take a delivery at the front desk–which ones will only take them in the mail room. I know that once the walk signal starts flashing red it will flash thirteen times before finally allowing cross traffic. I know that Margaret, the meter maid, will not ticket me in a passenger zone, but her colleague, the spectacled, stout man with the perpetual frown, will. It is, no doubt, mundane knowledge, but necessary, too, if I am to achieve the deliveries-per-hour required of me.
I parked my truck in the parking lot, opened the back, looked at the name again: Sophia Williams, wrote down on my clipboard that this forty-five pound box with two red “FRAGILE!” stickers on it, had no tracking number, then grabbed it and my clipboard before using my foot to close the back door. I decided to carry the brown, cardboard, heavily taped box. It’s a decision I sometimes labor over with heavy boxes. If I can carry the box and make the delivery right away then I don’t have to maneuver my hand-truck into and out of the building, but if people send me from floor to floor and suite to suite then I wish I had it. I gambled.
I started down the long sidewalk, with the 24 inch square box, my clipboard flat on its top, my scanner hanging at my side and a pen in my white uniform shirt pocket. The large expanse between the parking lot and the entrance seemed enough of a distance that it might discourage an old person or someone with a physical handicap, actually cause them to turn back or never get out of their car. But if you’ve never been to the building there is no way of knowing what a long trek it is to the front entrance. It’s not a question one thinks to ask over the phone: “How far is it from the parking lot to the main entrance?”
The Granger Building is only ten stories high, but spread out, as if to make up for its height limitations, over a quarter of a mile. The main hallway is wide enough to play a good game of street football or hockey. The Granger’s beige plaster facade with dark brown trim on the windows and long columns reaching to the roof give it a sense of authority, as if it is a government building containing the laws of the land or a prestigious library housing the greatest literary and philosophical works that humanity has produced. In reality it contains business offices for bankers, lawyers, doctors, accountants, promoters, construction companies, ad agencies, acting agents–almost anything connected with the world of work.
Two dozen, old, gray air-ventilator turbines jutted toward the sky from the red-tiled slightly peaked roof, turbines that had been spinning since before my birth and would continue spinning, like the earth on its axis, until long after I had died. If fire or earthquake or the demolition crew of progress destroyed the Granger Building those turbines would likely be clustered atop the rubble like distant galaxies spinning and spinning and spinning until their inevitable end in the still point of the universe.
The box for Sophia Williams was unevenly balanced–it felt as if a lead weight sat wedged in one corner. It made it difficult to handle and awkward to negotiate a door like the one at the south entrance of the Granger Building. A box like that is too heavy to hold in one hand for long, so when I reached the double doors I started to open the left door with the index finger of my right hand which still held the front bottom corner of the box, slipped my foot into the crevice then pushed the door further open with my foot as I regained better control of the box now that my finger was free, but I still felt slightly unbalanced. Some doors, like this one, are heavy, so as soon as the opening allowed, I squeezed through it with the similar grace of an infant entering the world for the first time.
The inside of a building rarely changes. It doesn’t matter what it’s like outside: raining, sunny or dark. Inside, it’s another world, as they say, but it’s always the same world regardless of the outside one. Every building has a different feel to it, a kind of personality. The Hill Center is clean; the United Bank Building is modern; the Washington Business Center is lavish; and The Granger Building is expansive. The Granger architect, I guess, had no space considerations. Land must have been cheap, construction costs minimal. Wide hallways and stairwells and tall ceilings had been built when few people concerned themselves with conservation of any kind and the builders celebrated their creation with spatial fecundity.
The expansive hallway easily handled the large numbers of busy people rushing in both directions to the main lobby of The Metropolitan Bank on the one end and the city’s electric company, Clean Energy at the other, where I had entered. I walked straight into Clean Energy carrying the box for Sophia Williams. With so little information the best thing is just to start where you are. If you are lucky and get someone who knows what they’re talking about you can make a delivery like this fairly quickly, if not, you can at least get an opinion from which to get some bearings, but erroneous knowledge at the beginning can make the process a lengthy one. Clean Energy was a good bet because they have hundreds of employees and numerous smaller offices in the Granger Building.
Every delivery acquires a plan. For most it’s simple: decide what streets or freeways to take to the physical address, where to park, what entrance to use, who to seek out for a signature and how to get back to the truck. Other deliveries, like this one, demand more than the rote, almost instinctual knowledge necessary for regular deliveries. I asked a young receptionist about Sophia Williams.
“I’m new here, but that man over there in that office might be able to help you,” she said pointing behind me.
The plaque on the door read: Joel Henson, Billing Coordinator. I slipped my head into his office. It contained several bookcases filled with large, blue three-ring binders, a plastic ficus tree and Mr. Henson seated behind a desk made of particle board and fake oak veneer. Reasonably priced–no doubt; utilitarian–obviously; quality, longevity, aesthetics–not an issue for someone like Mr. Henson.
“Excuse me,” I said.
“Yessir?” he said loudly. “What can I do for you?” He stood erectly and courteously. He wore a dark suit coat and looked at me with no apprehension.
“I’ve got a delivery here that just has a name and this address and I’m hoping you might be able to help me locate the individual.”
“I’ll see what I can do. Let’s have a look at it.” He spoke in a polished, almost rehearsed manner, something like a preacher greeting people at the back of the auditorium after a sermon. Friendly, very friendly.
“The name,” I said, “is Sophia Williams.”
“That’s no problem,” he said confidently moving around the desk next to me. “I know exactly where she is. I’ve never met her, but my buddy has done business with her for years. Their grandchildren go to the same school. Anyway, she works on the third floor, in suite 350.”
“That’s great,” I said almost euphorically. “Deliveries like this usually don’t work out this easily.”
“I’m glad I could help you.” He placed his hand lightly on my shoulder and moved me toward the open door. “Take the hallway down to the elevators. When you get off the elevator turn left, it’s the second door on your right. One, two, three–simple as pie. If I can help in any way, you just let me know,” he said as if he were a father sending his son off to college.
“Thanks.” Good information at the beginning is a deliverer’s boon. I left his office with as much confidence as he had. With a suite number in my head in a familiar building it was not necessary to consciously think about it–I devoted my thoughts to tonight and my weekend. I tried to decide what kind of movie to rent for the evening. A romantic film often gets my wife in the mood, though I, and most men I know, am not moody when it comes to sex. For me mood music, Abigail teases, is the hum of the refrigerator motor. But a new film had just been released on video that we both wanted to see it: The Palladian Project. It was some kind of murder mystery involving a furniture maker during World War II. The previews looked good, but that can be deceiving.
Without noticing it I opened the door to suite 350. In front of me sat a receptionist wearing a headset and speaking rapidly into her small microphone that curved around toward her mouth like some tiny, mechanical snake. “He’s not in would you like to leave a message on his voicemail? Thank you. Hello, Hartford and Hillman can you hold, please?” She rapidly pushed a button. “Hello, Hartford and Hillman can you hold, please?” Again, she pushed a button. “Hello, Hartford and Hillman can you hold, please?” She looked up at me. Her eyes were brown, deep set and too close together for my taste, but she seemed a serious person or at least a serious, organized receptionist. “Can I help you?” she asked.
“This is for Sophia Williams,” I said as if her presence were a certainty and motioning my head toward the box.
“Sophia Williams?” My confidence fell a little.
“No person by that name here,” she replied. “What suite number does it say?”
I do not like it when people attempt to check my ability to read a label. “It doesn’t have one, but a man in Clean Energy seemed pretty sure she worked in this suite. Maybe it’s someone new to your office–do you have a list . . .”
“No,” she answered emphatically, indicating that she did not need my help either. “I know everyone in here.”
The delivery for Sophia Williams now had the makings of an ordeal. “Thanks,” I said. I decided to exercise one of the best weapons a delivery person possesses: the mail room. Mail rooms are often a delivery person’s savior and this one had often been mine. Mail room clerks know lots of people by name and they take packages and deliver them for you. I walked down the hallway hopeful, but noticing, for the first time, that the weight of the box had fatigued my right arm so I switched, with some difficulty, the heavy corner to my left hand. I had my clipboard balanced on top and I pulled the box as closely as possible to my body while supporting it with both hands on the outside bottom corners, but its strangely distributed weight made me walk almost as if I had a congenital limp. When I arrived at suite 390 the note on the door read: “The mail room has moved to the fifth floor, suite 509.”
“Shit!” I said remembering they told me last week they would be moving there. I walked down the hall toward the elevator. The floor was covered with white, marble tiles that had lost their pristine whiteness many years ago. Dark wood wainscotting, something like mahogany, covered the bottom third of the walls and lights hung from the tall ceiling by black cords. The white ceiling was constructed of some kind of cork board that absorbed the echoes of speech and business twelve feet above my head. The elevator, newly renovated, was carpeted and as the doors shut the quiet solitude induced a pleasant forgetfulness about my situation–until the doors opened on the fifth floor.
A mail room is characterized by spurts. There is the morning rush to deliver the mail to the offices it services and there is the afternoon rush to pick up and send the overnight mail that accumulates from those same offices. In the middle of the day there is not much to do. Half the staff could handle it, but during the rushes twice the staff is needed and chaos ensues, though not really chaos, it only looks so to those who have never worked in a mail room. It’s ordered panic. In the morning everyone wants their mail as early as possible, particularly the overnight mail and in the afternoon they all want it to go out as late as possible, particularly, again, the overnight mail. The clerks become callous to urgent requests, a necessary characteristic because business people always need or more accurately, demand precedence, as if they and they alone are the sole clients of the mail room. Clerks know better.
I entered the mail room during the afternoon rush and made my way to the nearest clerk who busily signed forms for an overnight express courier waiting impatiently for the last needed paperwork. The large room incorporated two long rows of tables, a dozen stainless steel mail carts scattered about, doorless metal mailboxes all labeled either by suite or name and a wall with photocopiers and fax machines manned by young clerks talking to one another above the methodic, constant din.
“Excuse me,” I said, but the clerk did not hear me or maybe he simply chose to ignore me as he hurriedly signed paperwork for the other courier. Instead of wait I moved on to the next clerk who sat in front of a computer screen. I had delivered to her many times before–but did not know her first name, nor she mine. I have delivered to people for years whose first names I do not know and who do not know mine. Her last name was Scott, I knew that much. She was an attractive woman in a conventional sense: large breasts, make-up, tight sweater, tight jeans. I used to be easily distracted by women(men too, if they wanted to talk sports or politics)–lingering around to flirt if they desired or chose to play along. A few months after I first took this job I wanted to be distracted just to forget work, to have fun, to forget the fact that for eight hours a day I did something with little intrinsic value. After ten years at this my perspective has changed–it also changes toward the end my day.
“Excuse me,” I said. No response. “Excuse me,” I said again with more volume and some irritation.
She looked directly at me with a bold, almost brazen expression. “Yes,” she said, ceasing her typing. She seemed a little old, probably mid thirties, to be working in a mail room, though she was younger than me. For a moment I could feel the old lust rising, but I knew I wanted to get rid of the package more than admire Ms. Scott.
“I’m looking for Sophia Williams. Have you ever heard of her?”
She turned toward the computer screen, began typing, pushing various function keys, moving the mouse, then said, “Sophia Williams?”
“Yes,” I responded.
“No. We don’t service anyone by that name. Hey, Donny!”
“What?” came a voice from behind me.
“You ever hear of a Sophia Williams?” she yelled.
There was a pause. “Nope.”
“Sorry,” she said. “No Sophia here.”
Her certainty, her confidence about this matter depressed me. I walked into the hallway and suddenly I had to start all over again. It was as if I had just walked into the building for the first time, as if this was the first delivery I had ever attempted. Both my arms ached and the box tugged at my fingers. The truth was this: not only had I made no progress–I had regressed. As I stood in the hallway beads of sweat rolled off my cheek onto the box creating small, salty water spots that spread out and disappeared on the brown paper. For a few minutes, though, my anxiety would have to wait; I needed to find a rest room. It had been almost four hours since I had urinated.
The men’s room at the west end of the building was separated from the women’s on the east by a quarter mile of hallway. I headed west down the hall, noticing, as I went, a stream men going into and out of the rest room: suits. That’s what we, uniformed delivery men and women, called them. Theirs is no less a uniform than ours, though it carries more clout, more prestige. Most of them were not wearing their coats, but easy enough to spot, nonetheless. I followed a man through the rest room door. To my surprise the suits filled the large, open room. They must have gotten out of a meeting or something and congregated there like a pack of coyotes. It was an enormously large rest room. The water pipes, painted off-white like the walls, hung from the ceiling as did the black sewer pipes for the rest room on the next floor up. Small, white, hexagon tiles fanned out from a drain in the middle of the floor and a dirty, brown wall-heater stood near the door like an old sentry past his prime. The large open space between the wooden stalls and the cast iron urinal, that looked more like a watering trough for horses than something to pee in, seemed almost wasteful. Lines of men waited their turn to urinate.
I set the box down on the counter near a sink and got in line for one of the stalls. I hate using those community urinals; I prefer privacy particularly with a group of suits. They must have all known each other because the banter and conversation was nonstop.
“So, how’d you come up with that?”
“Well, it was the result of a lot of creativity. We just asked ourselves, ‘What is it that we actually do?’ After that it was easy. It’s better to convey a simple, straightforward thought than a complicated one.”
“That’s really true.”
“You just have to understand the concept.”
“What do you mean I’m fat? Look in the mirror, dough boy.”
“All I’ve got is fat wallet.”
“The only thing slim about you is your memory.”
“That doesn’t even apply.”
“That receptionist on four?”
“No, no. This is the court reporter–the blond, she did that deposition last week at Usher, Judson and Calderon.”
“Oh yeah, I remember her.”
“We’re going out tonight.”
“They’re central to the project whether they want to be or not. It’s really not even a matter of them liking it–we need them.”
“I think if they understand we need them and we offer a good incentive . . .”
“Incentive? I don’t want dole out any more money on this thing. Harry ought to be able to get his team to see the necessity of completing this before that Hillson project they’ve been working on since the dawn of time.”
“Yeah. Varsity. Can you believe it?”
“I can’t believe he’s in high school already. That’s a big school, he must be pretty good.”
“He is. I’m his old man, but I know he’s good, better than I ever was.”
I don’t like those situations. I get treated differently. My uniform, the shorts and cotton/polyester white shirt, makes at least one distinction clear–the other distinctions are not apparent. Rarely will anyone initiate a conversation with me and there is little chance that it will be meaningful. In some ways it’s as if my uniform makes me invisible. I’m often amazed at the conversations I hear on the elevators. Those suits will talk about almost anything in front of me, but if an unknown suit gets on they act as if he were their priest or parent or CEO. I didn’t find their exchanges interesting–the only interesting thing to me at that point was how to find Sophia Williams, how to get rid of that damned box. Then it occurred to me that one of those men might know her and my problem would be solved. Normally, I would never address a group like that, but necessity altered my behavior.
“Excuse me,” I said loudly. It became quickly quiet as everyone who could turned toward me. “I’m looking for Sophia Williams. Does anyone know her?”
They mumbled, a few said, “No,” and the banter continued.
After urinating my arms felt good again, but I knew I had to pick up that box and I knew the fatigue would come more quickly this time. After I exited the stall, I zig-zagged through the suits to the sink, washed my hands, picked up the box and walked out into the hallway. One of the suits followed me out.
“Excuse me,” he said, “I think I’ve heard of Sophia Williams–I remember meeting a young woman at the snack stand one day. I think that’s what she said her name was. Is she a young woman?”
“I don’t know. A guy downstairs seemed to think she was rather old.”
” Well, this woman was definitely young, early twenties for sure, but I don’t know for sure if she was Sophia Williams. I guess that’s obvious.” He laughed easily. “Anyway, I don’t know exactly where she is and it’s possible I may even be wrong, but maybe it’ll help you out.”
“Anything would be good now.”
He was a short man with dark hair and a heavy beard easily seen even though he was clean shaven. “I think she said she works on the top floors, you know, seven through ten. It’s kind of a vague memory, it was a some time ago, but it sounds familiar to me. I’ve worked in this building for a long time–so it may be an accurate hunch.”
“Thanks,” I said. “I’ll definitely go up there.”
“Hey,” he said. “Have you tried information?”
“I don’t have a phone.”
“Here, use mine.” He handed me his cellular and I set the box down.
I called, but of the 354 Williams who were listed there was no Sophia. “She must be popular,” the operator said, “I just had someone else call looking for her.” That seemed strange and coincidental, but I suppose the person who is the one in ten-million chance feels the same way. One in ten-million means there will be one. Probably she was the only operator in the world that day to get two calls for the same person–and remember it. I wondered who else wanted to find her, most likely another delivery guy.
“Nothing,” I said.
“Look, if you can’t find her come down to my office, suite 458. Maybe together,” he talked passionately, as if this mattered as much to him as to me, “we can find her.”
“Thanks,” I said, “I may take you up on that.” I picked up the box as he walked back into the rest room. I felt good again. He wanted to help me, that was evident. Meeting someone like that always feels good and meeting someone who dispels my stereotypes of suits keeps my cynicism at a manageable level. He offered minimal help, but at least he was honest. Maybe, ultimately, he would be the one to help me find Sophia Williams, wherever the hell she was.
On the seventh floor I talked to man whose impatience and irritation both angered and disheartened me.
“I think they’re on the ninth floor,” he said as if my interruption was an intrusion on his precious time, as if my need was trivial compared to the papers he was reading. I wanted to say, “‘They’? Sophia is a she, not ‘they,’ you asshole.” He hadn’t even really listened to my question.
I said hello to another delivery guy who didn’t know where she was either. “I had something for her last week,” he explained. “Just had to take it back. I don’t know what happened to it. Maybe she picked it up at our station.”
On my way to the eighth floor I met two of my old friends from high school and college. For a few years we even worked together. They strode down the hall toward me in that confident manner of businessmen attempting to appear confident and untouched–a manner so common to me roaming the halls of downtown that I did not take notice of them until one of them spoke.
“Cliff,” I said, “what kind of company are you keeping these days?” I motioned my head toward Kevin, the taller of the two.
“The kind he needs,” Kevin said; he set his brown briefcase on the floor. The three of us stood in the middle of the hallway in a small circle. “Someone he can look up to.”
“In stature only,” I said, setting the brown box down. I knew we would talk for a few minutes.
“You’re still delivering packages?” Kevin said not to ask a question but to inform me of his opinion of what I had chosen to do 10 years ago.
“You’re still a suit?” I retorted. We had all been suits together for a time, all with aspirations to one day be CEO’s, making 6 or 7 figure incomes. They continued on that path–I dropped out almost ten years into it.
Cliff interjected. He had always been the one to intercede during our arguments attempting to keep things light. “So what are you up to?” he asked. He held a leather pouch at his side, a side that bulged out a few inches more than when I had last seen him.
“Same old,” I said. “Working as little as possible, eating, breathing–that kind of thing.” Once the cynicism and insults started I always had a hard time stopping.
“You ought to be head of that company by now,” Kevin said. He had his hands in his pockets and had a habit of beginning sentences with his head: he’d tilt it backward like one does in a silent greeting to strangers. “If you’d begun moving up when you started there you’d be making some nice cash, have some good stock and probably a mansion.” For Kevin, more than Cliff, working long hours earned more than money–it earned a badge, signified the presence of a kind morality that did not need virtue.
“I am head of that company. It’s an inverse hierarchy. The peons have all the power.” I held my clipboard on my chest behind my crossed arms as if to shield myself from Kevin’s barbs.
A few years earlier, like the friends of Job, they had confronted me about my career change. It began with an email from Cliff which he also sent to Kevin. He must have just read some book about positive thinking or getting rich or gone to some seminar about the same. “It’s just too bad,” Cliff wrote, “that someone with your abilities and your potential is wasting them. I’m afraid you might regret your decision in the future.”
They were and are earnest about business and career, so like new religious believers they wanted to talk. We met for an early breakfast. We sat in a booth in front of window overlooking a freeway. After a few minutes of trivialities it began, “I can’t believe you’re still just driving a truck,” Kevin had said. They sat across from me as if they were my interrogators. “You’re better than that. You ought to be with us again, back in the game, back with that intensity you used to have.”
The waitress delayed my response by taking our orders. When she left, I said, “I’d like to see ‘the game’ function without all of us who ‘just’ drive trucks.”
“You know what he’s saying,” Cliff interjected. “You’re an intelligent man. The country needs truck drivers, we know that, but you were going places.”
I think that is what bothered them the most. Of the three of us, I had been the most intense. I read In Search of Excellence three times, I read Frederick Winslow Taylor, I studied the lives of Rockefeller and Ford, devoured articles about current CEO’s, I read dozens and dozens of books on leadership, business management and making money. I went to conferences, I spent time in our warehouses with the workers who made the paper sacks we sold to grocery stores all over the country. I had started speaking at conferences, I worked 14 hour days, worked the weekend and moved up fast, faster than Kevin or Cliff and I made more money than them too. They looked up to me–envied me in a way. I had devoted my life to the corporation I worked for, not simply for the money, but because I thought it to be the right and best thing to do. This was what men did. It was a kind of religion. Eventually, I just lost my faith.
“What happened, Gregg?” Kevin asked.
“You know what happened. I broke my leg skiing. Abigail threatened to leave–I had an immediate epiphany and I got myself saved.”
“Be serious,” Kevin said.
I didn’t want to be. They met with me not to listen, but to attempt to convince me. They really didn’t want to hear what happened. I had broken my leg skiing, that was true. Twisted the tibia and fibula and each broke in two places. It was very painful. I spent two weeks in bed and that’s when Abigail asked me to quit my job. I told her she was crazy. No way would I do that. She even told me if I didn’t quit she’d leave me. She didn’t mean it and I knew it. In truth the threat didn’t bother me–I hadn’t spent enough time with her to care for her deeply or to think that her opinion was valid. In bed boredom overwhelmed me. I watched television, rented movies and read my business magazines until one day a package arrived from my grandmother. It was a book: The Pearl by John Steinbeck. I rarely wasted time reading fiction, but a short book tempted me, especially with nothing else to do. I started it one rainy afternoon after an argument with Abigail. By page two I was hooked. It drew out emotions from me that seemed more intense than any that life had given me. The poor family hoping to save their ill child, the evil doctor, the discovery of the great pearl–all of it captivated me. I wanted everything to work out in the end. It didn’t. I hated that book; but I had never before hated any book.
The Pearl did not alter my views in any immediate, measurable way. Maybe it shaved off a whisker or two from a notion or attitude. I completely missed the symbolism; it never occurred to me to look beyond the literal aspects of the story. But like the grain of sand in the oyster that begins the pearl, that book was an intrusion, something that irritated me. Eventually, like the slow movement of a glacier, I became aware of my discontent. I admitted to myself my depression and realized what caused it. Management was not for me, neither was being part of a corporate family: too many hours, too many rules, too little freedom. I had been too busy, too distracted to expose my dissatisfaction, to discover my true and essential desires. Three years after I imagined that pearl sinking to the ocean floor, I quit.
“Look,” I said more to Kevin than to Cliff after our breakfasts had come, “I like this job. I rarely work more than forty hours a week, I don’t have some asshole looking over my shoulder while I work and I see Abigail and the kids more than I’d ever get to if I was still looking to grab hold of that next rung.”
“But what about retirement? What about your kids’ education? What kind of school are you going to be able to send them to on what you make now? What kind of life are you and Abigail going to be able to have?”
“Slow down, Kevin.” I stared at him for moment as we gathered ourselves. “We have a good life now,” I said forcefully. “I care about the future, I’m preparing for it–just not at the expense of the present. This job gives me time.”
“Time for what?” Kevin asked.
“For thinking, for reading–and I’m doing some writing.”
“What sort of reading?” Cliff asked.
I hesitated. I knew the reaction I would get when I told them, but I forged ahead. “Philosophy, literature–that kind of thing.”
“Ohh,” Kevin said, “You’re a serious man now and a starving artist besides.”
“I’m not starving, Kevin. I make a decent wage–not what you guys do, but it’s enough for me. I’m reading these books because I want to, not because I’m trying to be serious. I like reading them,” and then I added because of Kevin’s incredulous stare, “and it beats the fucking Wall Street Journal.”
As we stood in the hallway, three years later, I knew the conversation would come back to my “art.”
“You still writing?” Cliff asked.
“Yes,” I said self-consciously.
“Still reading lit-er-a-ture?” Kevin said.
“Why would I want to read anything else?” I responded with intentional condescension.
“Anything published?” Cliff asked.
“Well, hang in there,” Kevin said with mock reassurance. “Look at Danielle Steele. She makes millions.”
“She writes crap.”
“I guess that’s why she’s published and you’re not.”
Before I could respond two suits walked by at a fast, determined pace. They walked with purpose as if their presence at their destination would be responsible for a decision of great consequence. They were coatless. When suits wear coats it’s a good bet they’re on their way to some kind of meeting. Their conversation is business oriented, more about strategy, about who or what they are up against. Without their coats they are likely on a break and more relaxed, ready to ease their tension, to eradicate, for a few moments, their stress.
One of the men, clearly the older of the two, said, “Cliff. Kevin. You guys in the football pool?”
“I’ve already won,” Kevin said.
“Talk is cheap,” he responded as he sauntered down the hall like some politician smiling at and ignoring questions from the press. He had his red tie slung up over his shoulder like the scarf of a fighter pilot. I wondered if he secretly wished he could have used his testosterone in an endeavor of genuine gravity, in a situation that truly might mean the difference between life and death. Kevin looked at me and in a hushed voice said, “That guy pulls down 300 grand a year.”
Cliff and Kevin really hadn’t changed much. Money. That decided everything: worth, happiness, success. If pressed they would not admit this, but it was easy to figure out. They spoke in worshipful tones about their CEO and Bill Gates. The men they followed called themselves “leaders” and they led men by the thousands though they had not the time or the will to discover where men should be led to. These were the kind of men who motioned uniformed workers like me out of the elevator before them not from genuine courtesy but as a way to feign deference to establish their superiority, to gain the advantage.
Did Kevin and Cliff resent my lifestyle? Was it an affront to them, something that made them doubt their own choices? Had they invested so much into their beliefs that to change them now seemed unprofitable? It seemed to me their morality consisted not in the verity of their beliefs but rather in their ability to continue to believe them regardless of their experience. They complained about the hours they worked and their bosses. They dreamed about bigger salaries, bigger houses, faster cars–and women, they always talked about women. Middle-aged frat boys, that’s what I called them behind their backs and to their faces.
“Look, Kevin, I have no regrets about my decision to leave the rat race–if you’re happy in the corporate maze, that’s fine by me. Just don’t tell me I should join you. I’m not going to. I’m never going back.”
“Fuck you,” Kevin said. “You’re so–what’s the word?–self-righteous–no, that’s not it–smug. You’re so damn smug.”
“I’m not saying I wouldn’t like to make more money. Things are sometimes tighter than I’d like them to be, but I wouldn’t give up what I’ve gained. I’ll still trade time for money any day of the week.”
“Fine, fine,” Kevin said condescendingly, “be a fuckin’ delivery boy for the rest of your life. That ought to really make you feel good about yourself.”
Not once since I started this job had either one of them ever asked me what being a “delivery boy” entailed. Did they care that I worked around jets every morning, that I drove belt loaders and fork lifts, that I had to sort material to 50 other routes, that my back and feet have hurt on off for ten years because of the physicalness of my job? Did they think that what I did, what thousands like me did, could be respected? And yet, without us, where would their contracts be, how would they get their computers, their furniture, their depositions, their checks?
“You couldn’t be a delivery boy, Kevin.”
“Because you’re dick is too big.”
“Come on, guys,” Cliff said. “There’s no need to argue like this. We’re friends.”
I stared at Kevin, like I had hundreds of times before and we started to smile. He could always make me smile–it was something I loved and, sometimes, disliked about him. During some of our most heated or serious arguments he would smile at me and I, inevitably, would smile back even if I did not want to. His naturally mischievous face with an almost constant smirk had a boyishness about it that seemed out of place on a forty year-old man. He had a small mouth and an unbalanced smile: the right side always extended further than the left. We would always be friends, I knew that. We stood facing one another as if we were in phys ed again ready to start a towel snapping war.
“My dick is pretty big,” Kevin said in a playful voice, smiling wryly. We laughed.
“Let’s get together, sometime,” I said.
“Sure,” Kevin said. “Next month. Pizza and beer at Sorrento’s.”
“Sounds good. Well,” I said, picking up the box, “someone has to work around here.” Then it occurred to me they might be able to help me. “By the way,” I said, “do either of you know Sophia Williams? I’m trying to deliver this to her.”
“Sophia? Sophia Williams? Yeah, I’ve heard of her,” Kevin said.
“She’s that older woman, isn’t she?” Cliff asked.
“I thought she was pretty young,” Kevin responded.
I looked at them with a questioning expression. Is she young? Is she old? Is she in this building? Do either of you really know what the hell you are talking about?
“No,” Cliff said to Kevin, “she’s some eccentric in the building. Linda talks about her every now and then.”
“Yeah, she dresses strange, but she’s got a lot of money.”
After a few moments of silence, I said, “Any idea where she is?”
They looked at each other and shrugged their shoulders.
“Later,” I said. We parted amiably, but it seemed to me that some undefinable gap had once again widened between us.
Down the hall I stopped in front of a door with a plaque that said simply: Joe Kay, Attorney at Law. Inside, a desk strewn with papers sat kitty-corner to an old couch where, presumably, Joe Kay sat sprawled out as if his arms were the outstretched wings of some great bird of prey and I was his unsuspecting victim. His slacks fell loosely around his thin legs which he rested on a cluttered coffee table. “What do you want?” he asked; he had not even bothered to look up at me.
“I’m looking for Sophia Williams. I have a delivery for her.”
“What is it?” he asked curtly, after moving his head only slightly to see me. Did he know her? Is that why he asked?
“I’m not really sure. Something pretty heavy, that’s about all I know.” I should not have answered him, should not have deferred to him as if he had a right to know these things. What business was it of his?
“You’ll never find her,” he said disgustedly. “You can’t find anyone in this idiotic building. The guards don’t have comprehensive lists,” should have tried the security guards, I thought, “the doors aren’t numbered correctly and the whole layout is ludicrous. Fucking architect must have built rabbit holes before he designed this thing.” He groaned in pain so loudly that it startled me.
“Are you okay?”
“Of course not,” he said as if any idiot would know that. “Even the fire escapes are horrible. You’d probably have a better chance with the fire. Sophia Williams? Ha! I bet it’s a typo.” He had not been looking at me, but now he gazed directly at my face, his brown eyes so dark that they almost looked black and said, as if he was revealing another obvious fact to the uninitiated, “There is no Sophia Williams. He doesn’t exist,” he said arrogantly.
“She,” I corrected him.
“She, he, it? If it doesn’t exist, it doesn’t matter what you call it. You–are–wasting–your–time. What you ought to do is sit here with me for a few hours and you’d accomplish just exactly what you’re accomplishing now. Nothing. Not a goddamned thing.” He groaned again.
“Are you sure you don’t need some help?”
“Help?” he laughed madly. “There is no such thing. Help means that there is someplace to be helped to and no place is better than any other in this building. Have you been in all the offices?”
“No.” Why did I keep responding to him? He seemed to draw me in and repulse me at the same time.
“That’s why you think you’ll find her. I’ve been in nearly all of them–not a one makes sense, not the placement of the windows, not the doors, not the outlets–it’s completely absurd. The people are absurd too. Nobody here knows what they’re talking about–”
“Except you maybe?” I said, then reprimanded myself for arguing with a drunk.
“Touché, Monsieur,” he said with mock respect. “You think that if what I’m saying about absurdity is not absurd that there must then be a chance that there are other nonabsurdities. Is that it? Don’t hope for such a thing, my friend. I know that everything I say is also absurd. No one in the building knows what they are talking about and that includes me.”
“At least you’re consistent,” I said; I walked out.
I ran into people like that a lot on the streets of downtown, but never in an office. They stood on street corners or at bus stops or paced quickly through the crowds on Broadway and Main. Most of their loud ranting and raving was not directed at me–hard to know if it was directed at anybody–except some illusionary enemy or a phantom god.
The encounter angered me because he had been right about one important thing: the possibility of a typographical error. I should have thought of that and it embarrassed me that someone who had probably never worked as a delivery driver pointed it out to me. But it happens all the time. A six should have been a seven or an “a” should have been an “e” and you end up on sixth street instead of seventh looking for Mr. Avery instead of Mr. Every. I had not even stopped to consider the possibility. He was right. Maybe Sophia was completely wrong. Maybe it was the first name of the shipper’s niece and she was thinking about her when she should have been thinking about “Barbara” or “Bob.” I knew a Bob Williams on the third floor.
I didn’t even know how long I’d been in the building and it seemed there was no way to know how long I’d be here. I thought about leaving. More and more it seemed clear to me that there was no Sophia Williams. It made me a ridiculous man to keep looking. Most delivery people I know would have stopped after the mail room and not given it another thought, but I’ve been doing this a long time. Almost 10 years. Part of it is pride–I wanted to figure it out and part of it was because I knew, eventually, I’d have to come back. These deliveries do not go away–they never just disappear.
The difference between a bad delivery driver and a good one is planning and experience, but the difference between a good delivery driver and great one is the willingness to alter a plan, to improvise–sometimes in mid route. It’s not so much a matter of thinking quickly, though that can help, as it is about thinking well. There are drivers who will not reroute themselves even if circumstances make rerouting an obvious choice. Part of it is they just don’t want rethink or evaluate their original route set-up. It’s easier just to keep the original plan and neither, then, does one have to admit that the original plan had faults.
My tired arms ached, but I rationalized the situation by considering my journey without the hand-truck as good exercise. An old man walked slowly toward me down the hall. He had a cane and thick glasses. He did not look like someone who would know, but I decided to ask him anyway.
“Excuse me, sir,” I said. He continued shuffling on his way not even looking up. “Excuse me,” I said loudly.
He stopped and cocked his head, looking at me as if he was still unsure he had actually heard a voice. “Yes?” he said haltingly.
“I’m looking for Sophia Williams.”
“I’m looking for Sophia Williams,” I said again with more volume.
“Sophia . . . Williams,” I said both slowly and loudly.
“Oh, he said. It’s on the tenth floor.”
Oh brother, I thought to myself. This guy didn’t hear a word I said. She’s not an ‘it’, you moron–that’s what I felt like saying at that point, as unfair and as rude as that would have been, but I didn’t. However, I also didn’t feel like trying to communicate further with him so I simply said, “Thanks.”
I took the stairs, good exercise, I thought, to the tenth floor, the top floor, because I had never been there before and since I had never heard of a Sophia Williams she might very likely be there.
The windows at each end of the hallway were large, but not much to look through. They had something like chicken wire running through them which probably slows a thief down, but it doesn’t allow a clear view. I breathed hard after coming up the steps and had started sweating so much that drops fell from my face onto the floor. I found a drinking fountain, one of those old, porcelain fountains that put forth a large stream of water, a relic from the days when water conservation was a fringe movement. I rested a corner of the box on the fountain, then swallowed three or four gulps. To the left of the fountain a permanent wooden ladder ascended into a dark, square opening in the attic. It would have been a nice place to get rid of the box or a good spot to sit and listen to drinking fountain conversations, though the hallways on the upper floors have very little foot traffic.
I walked down the hall. I looked at names on the doors or anything that might give a clue, might, for whatever reason, maybe a reason that would never occur to me until I saw it, prompt me to try it and then, there it was, a simple name plate: Sophia Williams. The door was cracked opened so all I had to do was push it with my foot. It swung open easily. The office had a reception area and room in the back.
“Hello,” I said. “Anybody here?” Then a few seconds later, “Hello, I’ve got a delivery for you.” There was no answer. This was not an uncommon occurrence. I often walk into empty offices. Usually the receptionist is making a mail run or taking a rest room break so I simply wait a few minutes until they return or leave the package if it doesn’t require a signature. I probably could have risked not getting a signature for this because there was no tracking number, but I decided not to. I was curious about Sophia Williams. I wondered what the package contained and the office looked interesting. I set the box down on the desk and perused the office.
On one wall a bookcase stretched from the floor to the ceiling, its shelves lined with hundreds of books, but not books that all looked the same as if someone had simply purchased a huge set of classics for appearance sake, but books of all sizes from many different publishers. Hardbacks, paperbacks, old frayed books which probably never had dust jackets and new ones with titles I’d never heard before. There were lots of Greek and Latin books, some Spanish books, some Italian, probably a lot more in other languages that I didn’t notice. History, philosophy, literature, poetry, cooking, art, mythology, woodworking, biology, astronomy, geography, physics, they were all there. The opposite wall had several paintings and two back-lit photographs. The latter two were about two feet high and three feet wide. The top one was of the Andromeda galaxy, that beautiful, powerful spiral galaxy that is the Milky Way’s nearest neighbor and the bottom showed a cluster of galaxies, maybe twenty of them. The distances contained in that photograph were too great; to speak of not comprehending them gives the impression that some kind of meaningful, comprehension of the distances between and within them is even possible. Silence is more appropriate. The oil paintings were of various subject matters. In one a naked woman breast fed an infant. She was an attractive woman who looked tired and haggard, but also content. The stretched skin of her belly rolled out below the infant while her hand rested on a male hand that rested upon her shoulder. Another painting showed Christ on the cross. Behind him, off to the right a brilliant orange, red sun was setting. In a loincloth he not so much hung on the cross as stood there, his eyes lifted toward the heavens and he was laughing with his head tilted back in a kind of ecstasy, as if he had just enjoyed the telling of some great joke.
“Do you like my Jesus?” The voice startled me and as I turned I felt slightly embarrassed, as if I had been caught looking through a friend’s desk drawer.
“Yes,” I answered. Before me stood a petite, black woman. So she is old, I thought. Her hair was gray, almost white and very short. She looked at me over the top of her gold, square wire-rimmed reading glasses. “I have to say, though, I’ve never seen Jesus laughing on the cross.”
“Yes, I know,” she said. “That’s why I adore him so. That’s the Jesus I worship now. I got rid of the old one.” There was a brief silence and she said, “So, what may I do for you, sweetie?”
“Are you Sophia Williams?” I asked still thinking about what she had just said.
“Yes,” she said drawing out the word, “I’m Sophia Williams.”
“I’ve got a delivery for you–that box,” I said pointing to the desk. She seemed like a woman in her seventies who looked like a woman in her sixties. Her hands were the only thing on her body that carried her age or at least the only thing I could see. The wrinkles on her knuckles remained even when she bent her fingers and the veins on her hands could have been mountain ranges on one of those world globes that I loved to stroke when I was a kid. She was simply, but elegantly dressed: black, pressed slacks and a white, silk blouse. Small gold crosses hung from her ears and a single pearl hung from a thin gold chain around her neck. She walked toward the box. “I’m surprised it even got here. It’s not much of an address,” I said.
“Oh,” she said more to herself than to me, “I know what this is.”
“I had difficult time finding you.” Her back was to me.
“You have to be looking for us to find us.”
She started to open the package but stopped and turned toward me when I asked, “What do you do here?”
“Like you we deliver things. For instance, this box contains a replica of a statue that a client wants us to pick up in India and deliver to him here in the states. We’re going to construct a safe carrying case for it.”
“So you transport expensive items?” We stood facing one another and it suddenly occurred to me how tall I must look to her. I think she was barely five feet and I’m three inches over six.
“Valuable is a better word, hon’. Many of our clients trust us with family albums or old letters. Some will actually send current correspondence with us–or book manuscripts. So you could say that we’re messengers. We also handle lots of ancient artifacts. Our clients want hand-to-hand delivery and they want the first hand to remain the same one throughout the entire trip. That’s our guarantee. We have never lost or damaged anything that we have transported.”
“Never,” she said.
The variety of ways in which people make money has always amazed me. No less amazing to me is what services some people are willing to pay for. As I contemplated this a tall, young woman walked through the door wearing jeans and a red blouse. Her hair was long, brown and straight.”
“Sophia,” Sophia Williams said, “you can start working on that carrying case now.” She pointed toward the box.
“Excellent,” she said.
“Sophia?” I said to the older Sophia.
“Sophia Williams,” she said.
“Hello,” the second Sophia Williams said to me.
“Hello,” I said.
I must have looked perplexed. What I was thinking about was the fact that Sophia Williams was both young and old, black and white, tall and short and this is what had caused some of the confusion when I had asked about her, but I think the older Sophia thought I was puzzled by their relationship and she explained to me, not with a tone of offense but rather as if she was talking about something that pleased and delighted her, how she could have a white granddaughter.
“My husband is white,” she said, “and my son’s wife is also white, so Sophia, poor thing,” she said playfully, “is mostly white.”
“Shut-up, Grandma,” the mostly white Sophia said winking at me.
“But she’s going to marry a Chinese man so at least she’s headed in the right direction,” the black Sophia said.
“I didn’t know there were two of you,” I said “It caused me some confusion when I was looking for you. Some old man even called you an ‘it.'”
“Technically,” the shorter Sophia said. “We are an ‘it.’ Our company name is Sophia Williams.”
“Oh,” I said with comprehension and some guilt. “So the old man was right.”
“We’re an international company with dozens of offices all over the world.”
“So if I go to Mexico City I can find Sophia Williams?”
“Not exactly. I wanted the name of the company to reflect the country and culture where it is located, so the local manager names it. In Mexico City the name is Maria Gonzalez. In Tokyo it’s something else, but we all do the same thing, Sugar.” Sophia Williams was one of those women who could call you any pet name she wanted and it seemed the most natural thing in the world.
“Isn’t that a little confusing?” I asked.
“Not if you’re aware of it, not if you know that in China our company goes by a different name. It’s only confusing if you expect to find Sophia Williams in Beijing.”
“You’re not even in the phone book. How do people find you?”
“Word of mouth, mostly. Referrals. When people have cause to need our services that’s when they look for us. We’re really not that hard to find–just a little hard to pin down–we travel a lot.”
“What if someone needs you right away?”
“We don’t handle that kind of work. People are willing to wait for our services–or, at least, we make it clear they’ll have to wait. Some do, some don’t. Transporting valuable items is not something to rush. We leave the rushing to corporations like yours.”
“So you’re a corporation too?” I asked with a tinge of disappointment considering both my past and present employers.
“Yes,” she said, then added in response to my tone, “It’s a truly gorgeous word, it’s just that most corporations don’t live up to the ideal contained in it. ‘Corpus’ means body. ‘Corpora’ is its plural. ‘Corporate’ literally means to make into a body. The body is a wonderful, beautiful organism. When you are part of a body you accept both the responsibility and the advantage of that membership .”
“You’re the CEO?”
“More like the queen,” the taller Sophia said.
“On paper, yes, I’m the CEO. But it’s just a tax thing and anyway, Sophia acts like she’s the CEO–and I’m just an old, feeble woman so what can I do? I have to let her.”
The younger Sophia laughed warmly, left the box she had been opening, hugged her Grandmother from the side and said, “She looks so sweet, doesn’t she?” She returned to the box and said, “I’ve almost got this open, Grandma.”
The older Sophia said to me, “Would you like to see this? You should get some reward for hauling it up here.”
“Sure,” I said.
The younger Sophia had removed the contents from the box and was pulling the tightly packed paper away from what it surrounded. “They didn’t do a very good job,” she said. “I’m glad this is just a replica.” Slowly a rough kind of stone surface began to appear, probably concrete, and finally there it was: a statue, twelve inches high with a large square base. It looked primitive, ancient and grotesque. A naked woman sat on a stone block with her legs spread, exposing, though this was not clear, the top of the head of a baby about to be born. Her face was featureless except for large, protruding eyes on a head that was too big for her enormous body. Her breasts were big like whiskey jugs and yet, strangely, also resembled the heads of two penises, so it looked as if milk or semen might issue forth in a white stream. Her thighs were thick like the trunks of trees, her calves only slightly thinner. She had a big, round belly and it seemed to me she could have passed for a male Buddha.
I flinched back slightly.
“It’s stunning,” the older Sophia said as she surveyed the piece.
“Dad was right,” Sophia the younger said. “We’ll be fighting over who gets to pick-up and deliver this one.”
I hadn’t said anything when I saw it but the black Sophia must have noticed my reaction with her peripheral vision.
“Not so impressed?” she asked.
“I wasn’t expecting it to look like that.”
“It’s okay, honey, ” she said grabbing my hand and patting it. “No one ever does.” Sophia Williams, the older, was the kind of woman who was every man’s mother–every woman’s mother for that matter. “Don’t be too hard on yourself, though. It’s your first time.”
She released my hand to look more closely at the statue. “Well, poor thing has been lugging her around all day–you have to admit, she’s no Diana Ross.”
“I will admit that,” I said with a smile.
With her back to me she continued, “If you’re used to schlepping around documents, computers and who knows what else, the first time you deliver a neolithic mothergoddess can be disappointing.” She tipped the statue on its base to look more closely at its feet. “But after you travel a few thousand miles with the old bitch she starts to grow on you. She looks better and better and before you know it, you’ll forget all about Diana Ross.” She tipped the statue down and faced me, looking at me over top of her reading glasses. “I’m not saying you get used to her, Sweetie, you’ll never get used to her, you just understand her a little better.”
I laughed again and so did Sophia and Sophia and behind me, on the cross, Jesus was laughing too.