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Some Bit of Meaningful Information

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Elliott has hired Joyce to fill in for Sarah. He describes the secretarial position as temporary “you know til Sarah gets back on her feet.” Elliott hasn’t yet allowed himself to admit that Sarah won’t be coming back. Joyce is Elliott’s wife’s second cousin. She's fifty-seven. She has four children. She once worked briefly as a receptionist for an orthodontist. She types thirty words a minute, fifteen without obvious error. She claims to be a full charge bookkeeper. By this she means she can add and subtract simple sums with the accuracy of a reasonably savvy fifth grader. 

Nine tenths of Joyce’s day is spent on the phone with one or more of her hapless children. Her sausage patty lips flap endlessly with insipid advice on the colic, mumps, menstrual cramps, hemorrhoids and genital lesions. Listening to her would be funny if it weren’t so incredibly gross. The remaining tenth of Joyce’s day is spent sorting the mail, mangling the typing of simple correspondence and butchering the firm’s ledgers beyond recognition. Elliott imagines she’s doing a swell job.

Joyce has two other moderately annoying workplace habits. For one, she picks her nose.  Constantly.  Ordinarily, this wouldn’t be such a grave faux pas. Most everyone needs to perform some sort of routine nasal maintenance from time to time. Few however do it with Joyce’s relish. Whenever she plucks out something interesting, she will thoroughly examine it from the tip of her three-quarter inch fingernail, as though she’s searching for hidden treasure or maybe a secret inscription. This always grosses Elliott out. 

Joyce’s other annoyance is her inability to perform any task without reciting its steps aloud. This is residue of too many years spent mothering fogbound children as in: “See Billy, this is how we tie our shoes…” or “See Karen, this is how we cut our meat…” or “See Elliott, this is how we type our letter. First, we open up the file and then we press the return key, and then we press the tab key and then....”

Elliott has a new commission, designing a small town hall for the community of Priceville. For once, Elliott quotes a fee that truly reflects his estimate of the cost of the work. The town’s manager, a recent graduate of the Richmond College of Business, Interior Decorating and Cosmetology, is too green to know the difference. He signs off on the contract before Elliott has a chance to exercise his customary negotiating tactic, e.g. knocking a few grand off the proposal without so much as a whimper.

On the surface, the work seems to be a fairly simple architectural problem: office space for the town’s mayor, manager, director of public works, clerk and secretary, a duty room for Priceview’s tiny police department, offices for the police chief and his lieutenant, an evidence room and holding cell, storage, toilets and a unisex locker room. Somewhere, likely in the center of the building, will be a meeting hall of adequate size to seat the town’s seven aldermen and fifty citizens. Unfortunately, Elliott’s real problem with the Priceville Town Hall is not the requirements of its architectural program. Rather, his difficulty is the complete lunacy of the good folk of Priceville he is working for. 

The composition of hall’s advisory building committee is indicative of his challenge. The committee has four members. Two are Republicans. One is a Dixie Democrat. One is Libertarian. One is Baptist, one is Methodist, one is Christian Scientist and one has no known religious affiliation. One is a used car salesman, one is a housewife and mother, one is a social worker for the County’s Department of Human Services, one is presently unemployed. One is married, one is divorced, one is a lesbian whose life partner is the town’s only OB/GYN. One is black, this being the aldermen’s sole concession to the Priceville’s African American community whose constituents comprise roughly half the town’s population. The aldermen like to think of themselves as progressive and Priceville as being harmoniously integrated. It’s a pleasant illusion.

These four committee members have known each other for over thirty years. They all grew up together. They all left Priceville at one time or another and then came back having discovered their hometown’s stifling smallness less traumatizing than the outside world’s unremitting heartlessness. That they don’t much like one another is no surprise. And naturally, they’ve not agreed on a single matter of consequence in all the thirty years they've been acquainted. It is an archetypal building committee, guaranteed to thin hair and ulcerate stomach linings 

Fred, the Baptist Libertarian used car salesman, is a deliberate plant by an alderman opposed to the project. Fred's job is to sabotage any fragile agreement that does manage to emerge from the committee’s deliberations. He makes numerous comments and suggestions like: “why don’ we just strap togetha a couple ‘a ‘mobeele’ trailers an’ put a sign on’em sayin’ ‘Ye Ole’ Town Hall," or “ Why don’ we jes’ fix up da’ ole Marley place. It da’ be a swell meetin’ hall.” 

Helen, the Agnostic Lesbian Democrat, scoffs at each of Fred’s suggestions with the same pug-nosed sneer. “Fred, you dried-up old fart. The Marley place’s been under six feet of swamp water since last springs’ flood. You are, and for this I will employ the most charitable of terms, a frigging nutcase.” 

Fred knows better than to respond to the insult. Helen has the forearms and shoulders of a Florida State linebacker. He knows she could put him down without inhaling. He just sort of moves back from the table a safe distance and waits for his next chance to make another inane comment.

Peggy, by virtue of her years of work for the Boy Scouts, is the group’s den mother. She referees each scuffle with the same disapproving tone of matronly condescension. “Now Fred. Helen. You both know this is not helping us make our beautiful little town hall any better or quicker. Can’t you see,” she says, referring to Elliott, “we’re taking up this gentleman’s valuable time with all this silly squabbling. Why don’t we all just pull together? You know, many hands lighten the load,” she says cheerily.

Peggy is always chock full of saccharine aphorisms of this caliber. She dispenses them like marzipan party favors, as though their sweetness alone will make everything else about the committee’s work palatable. Whenever Fred or Helen sense another dollop of this drivel is about to spew from Peggy’s mouth, they both cringe and assume the same weary expression. It is a gesture that says without equivocation: “Peggy, shut-up, you fat, insufferable twit.”

George, the black Methodist social worker, never says anything. He just sits several feet removed from the conference table with his arms crossed. Even if asked a very pointed question, George refuses to be goaded into answering. He just throws his hands into the air, shakes his wrinkled head and says: “Ah jes’ donno. Ah jes’ donno.” 

Happily, Priceville’s seven aldermen are far more easily placated than the building committee. They all have sense enough to recognize that none of them has a lick of taste. They leave the aesthetic mumbo-jumbo up to Fred, Peggy, Helen and George. They just want the damned thing designed and built with a minimum of angst, at the absolute lowest cost. 

They are also in complete agreement about several other key issues. First, each is pretty sure their greenhorn, nitwit town manager, Wendell, is paying this architect way too much money and, second, each intend to wring every last cent of this fee out of the poor bastard's hide before it's all finished. Third, the aldermen had managed to endorse a preliminary plan for the proposed hall. This plan was prepared several weeks before Elliott was hired. The plan was drawn up by Wendell’s wife, Allison. 

Allison fancies herself something of an amateur architect. Like Wendell, she too is a graduate of the Richmond College of Business, Interior Decorating and Cosmetology. Her scheme squeezes all the requirements of the hall into an inarticulate square box. When Wendell describes this plan at their first meeting, Elliott is polite enough not to point out its obvious flaws. Allison has made the rest rooms only two feet wide. She has placed all the private offices along interior walls. None would have windows to the outside. And, her layout has more excess corridor space than Dulles International Airport. 

Allison had also prepared a crudely rendered, exterior drawing of her little town hall. It looks to have been colored in Crayola. It looks to possess all the charm of a funeral parlor. Wendall says: “Ya’ know, we could probably dress this up a little. Maybe put on some shutters and an’ plant a tree or two to cover up this bare spot on the left, but otherwise, it’s pretty much what we want yawl to draw up for us.” Some weeks later, after Elliott has persuaded the building committee and the aldermen to accept his own more facile proposal, one of the aldermen draws him aside to explain his earlier preference for Allison’s scheme.

“Yup,” he says with wry satisfaction, “I didn’t much care for her plan, but, ya’ know, the little gal’s gotta a great rack.” 

Wendell Woodburn has a very satisfying life and worries little about the security of his job as town manager, regardless of the aldermen’s opinion of his intellect. He knows they’d never be able to find another college grad willing to do the work for as little money as they’re paying him.

Fortunately, Wendell doesn’t have to worry about money or much of anything else for that matter. Allison has a terrific job doing interior decorating for Valerie’s Tile and Bath Shoppe. She makes more than enough to support them both. Plus, as has already been noted, she’s got a killer figure, nothing to snoot at if you’re as lame a guy as Wendell Woodburn.

As town manager, Wendell doesn’t have to work very hard and has no ambition to change this situation. He takes two-hour long lunch breaks. He stays home whenever he feels like it. When he does work, the administrative responsibilities of a town the size of Priceville are such that he can afford to be stoned out of his mind most the day. Every morning at 11:30 when the girls in the office take a break to watch Guiding Light, Wendell slips out the back door and tokes up. He’s not fooling anybody of course. His little puff parties have become something of an institutional joke around Priceville, so much so that the phrase “taking the red eye,” refers not to an early morning flight, but the burden of driving Wendell home whenever he’s too wasted to locate his car’s ignition. 

Wendell’s contributions to the town hall’s design process are limited to scheduling meetings, bringing Danish and coffee for everyone and then struggling to keep his droopy eyes propped open for the duration of the afternoon’s agenda. Occasionally he succeeds. 

By mid-April, Elliott has completed a detailed set of schematic plans for the hall and finalized its construction budget. Fred has withdrawn from the building committee. He just can’t think of any more lame excuses to derail the process and besides, Helen is really starting to frighten him. The remaining committee members vote to move the project to its next phase, with one abstention. The abstaining vote is George’s. In the lull between the committee’s approval and the Aldermen’s next scheduled meeting, Elliott turns his attentions to another, less nettlesome project . He still thinks everything about his little practice is going fine. Joyce blathers on to one or more of her children and occasionally accomplishes some small bit of work.

“See. This is how we do the filing. First we put all the papers that start with “A” in the “A” file, and then we put all the papers that start with “B” in the “B” file and then we…” 

On the second of May, Clive Wilson visits Elliott to review the books. Elliott’s fiscal year ends in June. This is the first of several meetings before Clive prepares Elliott’s financial statement and files his corporate taxes. Clive Wilson is a sly, country boy CPA. He knows every accounting trick in the book, including several not yet published. Clive’s particular gift to the profession of accounting is a unique ability to summarize the entire financial standing of the most complex business enterprise on the back of no more than two, narrow-ruled, 3” x 5” index cards. For Elliott’s business, Clive requires only half a card. He does recognize his talent is wasted on Elliott’s piddly-ass business. It’s impossible to shelter profit that doesn’t exist. Clive just does what he can to spare Elliott too much embarrassment in front of his wife at year’s end.

Joyce is asked to join Elliott and Clive at Elliott’s desk. Elliott believes there is nothing about his practice that shouldn’t be shared his staff. This is both enlightened and a silly waste of time.

As their meeting begins, Elliott busies himself shuffling the crumpled file folders splayed across his desk. Joyce examines the residue of her most recent nasal excavation. Clive casually flips through the pages of the general ledger, making a note or two on one of his three by five index cards. He looks at Elliott occasionally. He glances askew at Joyce from time to time, but mostly he keeps his eyes downward, inquiring of each ledger entry some bit of meaningful information.

After a time, Clive looks up at Elliott while sipping from a glass of sweetened ice tea. He says dully, “Elliott. Didn’t you want to have Joyce run some copies for us downstairs?”

Elliott, having made no such request, shrugs with characteristic confusion. Clive leans forward in his chair, pushes several papers in Elliott’s direction and again repeats his suggestion.

“Elliott. I really think we could use these copies for our discussions this afternoon.”

Elliott looks at the papers. He doesn't recognize their significance but as this is nothing unusual for him, plucks up each, collates them into a neat stack and hands them to Joyce saying: “Would you mind taking these downstairs and make…what Clive? Three copies?”

“Three copies would be fine Elliott.”

“Yes. Yes, yes. Make it three copies, could you please, Joyce?”

“Three?”

“Yes, Joyce,” Clive intercedes, “Three will be perfect.”

Joyce retreats from the office. Elliott sits. Clive continues his review of the general ledger. After several minutes, Clive puts down the ledger, glances over his shoulder to be certain Joyce has not returned, leans back in his chair and lowers his reading glasses to tip of his nose. 

“Elliott,” he says in an expansive tone, looking out through the unwashed windowpanes of the eleventh floor office. “I’d need to look at all this more carefully, you know…run some numbers, do some analysis and such to be sure, but as best I can tell, yawl are one hundred twenty-five thousand dollars in debt and about fifteen minutes from bankruptcy.”

Elliott strikes a pose of bewilderment that is even for him, startling. Clive recognizes his bafflement and offers his best-case assessment of the situation.

“O.K. Maybe twenty minutes to bankruptcy. Half an hour tops.”

“No.” says a completely dumbfounded Elliott. “No.”

“Yep,” replies Clive. “Looks to me like somebody’s has had her grubby little fingernails in the cookie jar.”

“No,” says Elliott in disbelief. “You mean...Joyce?”

“You got any better idea?”

“Well no…er, yes.. but no. Not Joyce. I mean how? What? We’ve been doing so well lately. Not Joyce. You can’t believe Joyce would have anything to do with this, can you really? She’s family. She’s my wife’s second cousin for Mother of God. She’s family. You have to be wrong about this. It just can’t be. It just can’t be.”

“Maybe Elliott,” Clive responds, “Maybe so. But, you know, that’s just the way it looks from my chair. That’s just how it looks from over here. Maybe we ought to ask Joyce what she thinks about it when she comes back. Let’s just see what she has to say for herself.”

Elliott nods blankly and says no more. Instead, he stares out the window of his eleventh floor office, off to the horizon.

There is a point three miles east of Elliot's home town, Alabaster City, where you can stand on a rise overlooking a tributary of the Cokihominy River. From this elevation, you can look east and if the day is clear and the humidity low, you will see the glistening sliver of Chesapeake Bay, shimmering like a satin ribbon draped across the horizon. From this same perch, you can turn to the west and see the profile of Alabaster City’s skyline, silhouetted against the setting sun. To the right is the soft sparkle of Alabaster University. To the left, the sodium vapor lamp glitter of Compton Point, the town's prim commercial district.  Between them, rising up from the haze of another dreary dusk, you can just pick out the upper three floors of the Central Square Mercantile Building. On this evening, if you were to look steadily and carefully, you might identify the dim light illuminating an eleventh floor suite of this building. You would be seeing the stark glare of six fluorescent fixtures lighting the architectural office of Elliott Ware. By now, it's nearly seven o’clock. 

Elliott is leaning backward in his chair, straining its poor frame to the limit. He's been drinking straight Scotch since four in the afternoon. Clive Wilson is seated in a chair opposite Elliott’s. He’s been drinking since four too. Joyce has left for the day, likely for the last time. 

The Scotch is Clive’s. He keeps it in his briefcase for just such occasions. Clive is not yet drunk. Far from it. He generally has a belt or two before going home every night. Elliott on the other hand, is perfectly snockered. He rarely drinks and then only a glass of chardonnay with dinner. 

“Jesus Clive,” Elliott spurts. "Can you believe it? Can you really believe it?”

"Nope, Elliott. Id’a be one for the books. One for the books fer sure.” 

“I mean, what was she thinking, Clive? What could she have possibly been thinking?”

“Apparently, not much.”

“Isn’t that the truth. Isn’t that God’s whole truth?”

“Yup. It be the truth. It be the truth fer sure.”

Earlier, when Joyce returned from her make-work errand, Clive would speak first. Elliott is still in shock. Clive begins quizzing Joyce about irregularities in the accounting of the firm’s disbursements. He does not accuse her of outright embezzlement, but neither does he allow any question about whom he believes to be responsible. Joyce immediately stiffens, her speech becomes stilted, her posture defensive. She is careful not to look directly at Elliott. She denies everything. 

Clive presses her further. Joyce again denies any involvement, pleading ignorance. It is nearly a persuasive argument. They all sit for a time in silence, each not looking at the other.

“Joyce,” Clive finally begins, “You need to tell us what happened. Sooner or latter, I’m gonna’ figure it out. Id’a be easier if you jes told us what happened right now.”

Joyce turns to the side of her chair. She looks up at the ceiling. Her chin is trembling. She nervously scratches at her fingernails. She is on the verge of tears. She still cannot look at Elliott. She speaks in a shuddering whisper.

“It’s like this, see. I see Elliott working so hard. He’s here working so hard all the time and you know, he’s just not making any money. He does all this work and he just never seems to make any money and I just thought it would be better if he thought things were going good, you know, like all his work was amounting to something. I just couldn’t tell him how bad things were, so I made it all look better. I made it all look good so he wouldn’t have to deal with that disappointment too. I real
ly did it for him, you know, for him.”

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