February 2007

Michael Paul Groves


This marks an author's first online publication Michael Paul Groves began writing seriously at the age 50, six years into recovery from mental illness. "You're Not From The Washington Post, Are You?" is his first published story outside the community college art magazines. He lives quietly reforming bonds with his kids, in Frederick, Maryland.

You're Not From The Washington Post, Are You?

Carl and Tommy were so clamorous, Fred could hear them coming down the hallway as far as the coffee area across from Bystry's office. It was twenty minutes to five. They elbowed into his office, the one he shared he shared with Mike Smith on Vice President Bystry's current bridge project. There was much at stake for Bystry: it was November and he had yet to land a project that calendar year. It was also would be the second largest project the firm would build, if they were awarded it, after the ill-fated Two Rivers Dam, a monumental loser that almost bankrupted the company.

Fred was the draftsman, Smith the spec-writer. Carl and Tommy worked in the building division, a less disciplined group than Bystry's, and they were ready to hit the bar.

"Po' Fred here," Smith said, jovially, "Has to wait until Bystry sees his drawings before he can play." Smith didn't want to be in the same bar as Fred, anyway.

"Not on a Friday night!" Carl exclaimed, "Everybody's going to be there."

Carl and Tommy were nicknamed Rough and Tumble because whenever they were in close proximity to each other and there was a lapse in the conversation, they started giggling and punching each other in the arms. This was a nuisance when they were sober, but after a few drinks the pushing and punching would quickly get ugly and they usually ended up on the floor, trying to scrape flesh and claw each other's eyes out. For this the two had been kicked out of every bar in a neighborhood rife with bars, except Venuti's, where they were pretty liberal about such things.

"How long is that going to take?" asked Carl, leafing through the inch thick stack of drawings on Fred's worktable. Fred brushed his hand away: "Get away from those!"

"As long as Bystry wants it to take," said Smith, trying to get his digs into Fred. "One Friday night he told me to wait and get on a six p.m. conference call, which I found out later was from California, three hours behind. I didn't get out of here 'til nearly ten."

Fred, a hefty two hundred and sixty-five pounds, put his hands on the arms of his expensive swivel chair, and squirmed. "Fuck that!" he said loud enough for anyone to hear down the hall, "I'm not staying here 'til ten on a Friday night."

"Don't worry about it, Fred. I was just trying to get your goat. We'll see you at Venuti's later on. Come on, guys." The two of them, plus Smith, passed out into the elevator lobby, laughing all the way.

Fred stared at the unfinished drawing atop a stack of drawings an inch thick. There were three that were not finished. He took the top drawing from the pile and taped it to his wooden drafting table, took his T-square and drew a horizontal line in ink over the pencil marks. The line ran the length of the drawing and represented a road that passed north of the construction site. As soon as he pulled the square away he saw that the line was slanted downwards almost by half an inch.

"Damn!" he said out loud. "Damn!" The drawing had been had been taped to the board at an angle.

At that moment he heard some grumbling outside his door. Miss Finey popped her head in and said in her condescending voice:

"Mr. Bystry wants to see you right away!"

Fred suddenly felt panicky. He looked at the drawing on his drafting board. Not only was there the offending line, he must have passed his hand over the drawing without noticing because now there was a big ink smudge on the paper. Hopeless, he thought.

He would have to stall. Maybe there was time before the clients showed to fix the drawings.

Fred lumbered down the hall and stood in Bystry's doorway--at six five he nearly filled the opening. Miss Finey bumped into his back and squeezed past him, "EX-cuse ME!" she whined. She sat on the other side of Bystry's desk. Crossing her shapely legs, she smirked at Fred. Having her there only capped his impending humiliation.

Bystry's shiny scalp was already beet red. "Are those drawings done yet? The clients are on the way over!" Bystry paused to take a breath. "Why do I always have to be on your case?! Are the fucking things done yet or what?!"

Fred looked away from Bystry and traced his finger on the door frame. "Yes sir, they are done."

"Get them and put them on my table."

Fred made it back to his office, scraped off the tape on the corners of the drawing with his thumbnail and put it back on top of the pile on his worktable. Then he took the top three unfinished drawings, rolled them together with a rubber band and put them underneath his table.

He brought the remaining drawings into Bystry's office and set them neatly on his table. Bystry and Miss Finey were giggling. Around the office it was rumored that the two were having an affair, though Bystry was very married.

Fred said quietly, "Yes sir." Then he stood there, clumplike.

"Well! What is it?!"

"I just thought sir..."

"Thought what?! Go wait for me. I want you around when the clients are here."

* * *

Fred went back to his desk. He unrolled the three unfinished drawings. Maybe I can finish them up quickly and just tell Bystry they were misplaced, he thought. But no, the line he had added to the top drawing had smeared. The drawing was ruined and had to be done from scratch.

He sat down and put his head in his hands, depressed. It was hard to concentrate. He needed at drink.

He snuck up the corridor to the coffee area. After dark, the reflective glass on the exterior of the building made mirrors out of the windows that faced into the perimeter offices. Fred could see clearly every detail of Bystry's office. Good, he thought. Bystry and Miss Finey are still in their seats and Bystry was smiling. He hasn't looked at the drawings yet.

A green light flashed in Fred's consciousness. He scooted back down the hall, grabbed his tweed jacket and pushed through the back door to the elevator lobby.

He went down to the first level and crossed the plaza in front of the building to East Street.

* * *

He had a hard time getting to the bar through the crowd at Oleary's, it being Happy Hour on a Friday night, but soon he waved down Pat, his favorite bartender.

"Hi, Fred. Just finishing up in the office?"

"Yeah. Let me have a double Jameson's."

"Whoa. Maybe you'd better start off with a beer or a stout."

"Me customer. You barkeep. We both have our jobs to do. A double Jameson's, and please hurry!"

Pat brought the whiskey. Fred searched his pants for folding money, but he only pulled out a handful of coins.

"Listen, Fred. It's on the house, as long as you go do your drinking somewhere else. I just don't want you around any more, know what I mean? Hit the road."

Fred shrugged, downed the shot and as he turned to leave he heard someone call from the back of the crowded room. "Hey Fred! Fred!" He hesitated but didn't look back.

By the time he crossed the plaza to the elevator lobby the nurturing warmth from the whiskey was coursing through his limbs, empowering him.

He crossed the elevator lobby and through the back way, but he forgot to ease the door closed. He was taking off his jacket when the metal door slammed shut. He winced at the sound of Bystry's voice:

"West?! Is that you? Come in here immediately!"

Once inside Bystry's office, Fred saw the players had increased to five: himself, Bystry, the hateful, Miss Finey, covertly filing her nails behind her steno pad; and now, on Bystry's couch, two middle-aged gentlemen in white button shirts and grey suits. He assumed these were the Crosbys of Crosby and Crosby, Inc., the financiers of the bridge project he and Smith were working on. Both had dour faces, but at least the Crosby closest to Fred didn't have his brows furrowed a scornful way, like the other one. Of course, Bystry skipped the formality of an introduction and went directly into a tirade:

"You are missing the three most important drawings!? Are you holding out on me? If you are, you'll pay!"

The two gentlemen provided no discernable shift in their expressions, as if Bystry's ranting was taking place in another room.

Bystry's egg shaped head was now the color of a wild red rose. "Do you think I'm an idiot?"

Fred hesitated for a couple of seconds, and then said, "I'm not a good judge of such things, sir."

Miss Finey abruptly ceased her nail filing, and the clients, ears pricked now like rats, faced him now both with scowls.

"What?! Are you calling me an idiot?"

"No, sir. I just--".

"If this is the employee responsible for the missing drawings...," said the closest Crosby.

"I'm not sure we want this young man working on our project," said the other.

Bystry squeezed his palms together. "No, sirs, we will get this straightened out. I've got the right men for the project, they having been working around the clock. It will get resolved." Then turning to Fred, "I don't want to hear 'what you just.' You'd better get back there and find those drawings, and don't go anywhere until you find them. This isn't over!"

Bystry put his face in his hands and rubbed his scarlet scalp. Miss Finey's filing resumed, grating across the otherwise still, quiet room.

* * *

Fred slumped in his chair, his thoughts not on the drawings or clients, but on the gnawing in his stomach and the images of the bar tables at Venuti's where Rough and Tumble and Smith and the boys were putting up rounds.

He was rubbing his eyes with his fingertips when a blonde head poked thorough the office door. It was Grayson, the only admitted recovering alcoholic in the company, who also happened to live next door to Fred. He made it his business to follow Fred and a couple others around in an effort to interest them in getting sober.

"Not at Venuti's with the boys, Fred?" Grayson asked.

"Not now, Grayson," Fred said quietly.

"Bystry got you handcuffed? I saw you at Oleary's a little while ago and I was going to buy you dinner, talk a little bit."

Fred swiveled around in his chair and clenched his hands on the armrests and leaned forward, "I SAID NOT NOW!!"

"Geeezzzz, just trying to help." Grayson turned around and retreated up the hall.

Grayson was the push Fred needed. It was after seven and he realized he should call Susan. He dialed the number slowly; the double Jameson's was making him sluggish.

"Susan!" He tried to sound as clear and direct as possible, no panic.

"Don't tell me. It's Friday night, so you will be going out for one with the boys."

"If you must know, I'm still at work and I'll be here quite awhile, so it will be too late to hook up with the boys."

"Well, the best I can do for you, then, is heat up the mac and cheese in the microwave. I'm going to church."

There was the accursed word, church. Fred felt the anger swell up in his gut and he tried to refuse it.

"OK ." he said. "Enjoy yourself."

He went over to the coffee machine to peek at Bystry's reflection. The same four players sat there. At the sight of Miss Finey, the anger he was trying to stymie was now twice as hard to put down. She was taking notes now while the other three talked.

When he got back to his office, he checked his wallet and it was as he thought: two single dollar bills. That wasn't going to do it. He'd have to drop down into East Street to the ATM machine. After all, the boys would be buying rounds. Bystry was tied up; he wouldn't miss Fred for five minutes.

He grabbed his jacket again and went through the lobby door, carefully, slowly closing it, and into the elevator car, empty until a wrinkled hand forced the doors open--it was Mr. Burns, the Chairman of the Board.

"How are you, Fred?" Burns asked.

"Fine, sir," said Fred, concealing his surprise at Burn's recollection of his name.

"Good. Need you in tip top shape," said Burns, confusing Fred even more. "How's the bridge job going?

"Fine," Fred replied, "it'll be finished by next week. That's what we're working on tonight. I'm just going around the block for some fresh air."

"Keep up the good work, Fred. We're watching you."

* * *

The ATM he was looking for was right across the street from Venuti's. He put his card and numbers in, and struck the balance key--sixty-seven dollars and twenty-three cents. Damn, he thought, it'll just have to do. He took three twenties out and stuck them in his pocket.

It won't harm anything, he said to himself, if he stopped into Venuti's to see if the boys were still there. He wouldn't have anything to drink, then he could head back to the office.

When he went in he found his chums at a table away from the bandstage. There were Rough, Tumble, Smith. Sitting with them was Carson, who was from accounting, the only guy in the firm who could measure up to Fred physically, in bulk. He sidled up to the quiet table (the band hadn't started yet) and said, exuberantly:

"This doesn't look like much of a party table to me!"

The men greeted Fred lukewarmly as he pulled another chair from a table full of girls.

Two empty pitchers and four half-empty beer glasses sat on the table.

"Hey, girl!" Fred shouted to the waitress. Whistled at her.

She came over to the table and said, "OK, big spenders. Are you all finished for the night?"

"Finished?! I just got here!" exclaimed Fred. "Give us two pitchers of stout and five shots of Jameson's. And make mine a double."

She eyed him sideways. "I'll get you a single."

"Cunt." He spoke under his breath, but made sure it was discernable to the rest of the guys at the table.

She returned to the table with the drinks. "That'll be $13.50." Fred gave her a twenty and took the change without giving her a tip. He raised his shot and raised his glass: "Salute!"

The other guys raised their glasses and tossed back the shots, but without much enthusiasm.

* * *

Smith asked Fred: "You finished up with Bystry?"

"Yeah. Everything's done. I don't want to talk about it."

"OK," responded Smith, recognizing the lie in Fred's voice but preferring not to chase it. "I'm going to make it an early one. I have to pick up some stuff for my wife."

"Not now!" Fred implored. "We're just getting started!"

"You know I can't take the hard stuff, Fred. Neither can you."

"Have another beer at least," Fred pleaded, "One more."

"One more," said Smith, picking up the pitcher and filling his glass halfway.

Fred turned to Carson, who was a company accountant. He did not know him that well, working in a different division, but he knew him by reputation--everybody did--as Carson's striking oil paintings of many of the company's more lucrative projects hung throughout the office. "I heard you're quite the wrist wrestler," Fred said.

Carson was sitting at Fred's table because he had come in late and the accounting table was full.

"I've done it when I've had a few drinks in me," Carson said evenly. "But I'm not in the mood tonight."

"C'mon, bean counter!" Carl clucked.

"C'mon, you puss!" echoed Tommy.

The clucking noises caught the attention of the accountants' table. Several of them came over and cajoled: "C'mon Gene! Take that slob!"

Fred had already ordered another round of shots and they came while he was rolling up his shirt sleeves. He threw back his, and as he put his glass down he saw Smith disappear out the front door. At first this was disappointing to him, but that quickly turned to anger--first at Smith, then at Carson, who had his sleeve rolled up.

"You left handed?" Fred loosened his tie and cracked his knuckles. "That's all right; I'll take it that way, too!"

"We'll do it both ways if you want to," said Carson, calmly.

Soon a crowd, made up mostly of Carson's supporters (one of accountings' long-term employees was leaving the company and the whole department had turned up to see her off) ringed Fred's table, everyone craning their necks to see the match. It was over practically before it started. Fred's whole face was now the color of dark wine. The veins in his neck protruded on both sides.

Fred barked, "You said two out of three!" Carson had said no such thing, but snapped.

"Bring it on!" The mildest mannered guy in the company was losing patience with Fred. They moved to the other side of the table to accommodate a right-handed match and although Fred was the right-handed guy, this match was over almost as quickly as the first one.

Before long, Fred was sitting at the large table by himself: Carl and Tommy had sneaked out before the match and Carson, now a hero to the accounting crowd, had squeezed into their table. Fred sat angrily for a couple minutes watching Carson laugh and be toasted. When he saw a sexy young thing riding sidesaddle on Carson's lap, Fred decided to leave.

Three partial whiskeys sat unattended on the round table. Fred looked around then moved out on them, tossing down one, then two. Just as he was downing the third, he saw the waitress heading towards him. Fred turned and bolted.

* * *

He lumbered down the sidewalk, feeling indignation and nausea, first for losing the match, then at himself for buying so many rounds. "I'll bet those accounting people got on my tab, somehow," he thought to himself.

He passed a pay phone attached to a utility pole. "I should call Susan and tell her I'm coming home shortly," he thought. He searched his pants pockets in vain for enough change. Three doors away was the DownTown Liquors. He entered and asked for two dollars in quarters. He thought about getting himself a half-pint of vodka as a back up, but figured they might check him at the door at the next place he tried.

He went to the pay phone and put two quarters in it and dialed. A voice came on and told him to deposit another fifty cents. After he did, the dial tone came up. It rang five times. Just as he was going to hang up the boy picked it up: "Hello?"

"Hello, David. Is your Mom around?" Fred asked.

"She's still at church."

Fred cleared his throat. "How are you doing?" He'd been on thin ice for the past two weeks since he slapped the boy across the side of his head during a drunken rage, probably causing the boy permanent hearing loss, according to the doctor.

"I'm OK. Dad, are you drunk?"

Fred swallowed deeply, "Of course not, son. I told you I wouldn't be from now on. I had to work late. I'll be home soon."

* * *

He hung up and realized Solly's Bar was just around the corner. They were usually good for a couple of doubles. The door opened and he was only half surprised to see Rough and Tumble being forcefully ejected from the bar. They didn't even notice him standing there. "Good, damn alcoholics." he thought, "Can't hold their fucking liquor."

He waited a second for his eyes to adjust and peered about the room in case there were any friends or acquaintances to drink with. He wasn't sure how much money he had left, but it wasn't much. It occurred to him that the band wasn't too bad. He crossed the room to the bar and ordered a double Jameson's, which they gave him without any guff. As he listened to the band he soon felt he knew more about the music than the band members did themselves.

He downed the whiskey and found a single seat at a table occupied by three young women; so young, in fact, he was surprised they had been admitted to the bar at all. They all had evening gowns on. Maybe they had just finished as part of a wedding party.

The tallest girl turned around, looked him up and down, and then gave him a smirk. He put on his biggest, toothiest grin and said, "Hello!" She turned back towards the band and he unexpectedly felt a wave of guilt. What am I doing, leering at these young girls? I should be home with Susan, he thought. But soon another single Jameson's drowned out that chain of emotions and he settled in with his stout to watch the band. They reminded him of the young Rolling Stones. They launched into a version of "Street Fighting Man," and an idea snapped into his mind. He would meet the band members, be part of them.

He meandered towards the band with the stout in his hand. When they finished the song and he made it up to the stage. Fred waved at the lead guitarist

"Excuse me. Do you have a second?" He felt sharp and not drunk at all.

"What can I do for you?" the musician asked.

"My name's Roger Thompson. I'm a staff writer for the Washington Post Style section."

"Oh! Nice to meet you. I'm George Kingston. I usually speak for the band."

"Good, the boss. I was wondering if you guys would have time during your break to grant me a small interview."

"That wouldn't be a problem at all."

"I'll find the backstage when you're finished."

Fred made his way back to the same table, and the same waitress, as before.

* * *

Before the band started George got on the microphone and said: "You guys are a great audience! I would like to introduce Mr. Roger Thompson, who is a writer for the Washington Post. In the back, there." The audience responded with a spatter of applause. Fred smiled broadly and stood up to take a bow, stumbling a little as he sat down. "Waitress! Get Mr. Thompson anything he wants, on us! And, speaking of that, don't forget to tip your server."

She came over immediately. "What can I get you, sir?"

He liked this. "A double Jameson's and a stout, please."

"Right away, sir!"

Fred had been hoping that their break would follow the next song, but they started a second one, kind of a rock and roll ballad, long and lyrical. It only took a few minutes of this instrumental song before Fred began his slide from his perky, articulate persona into lethargy and muddled thinking. He borrowed a pad and pen (the draftsman leaving the office without a pen? he had been in a hurry) from the waitress to doodle on, to bristle his concentration, while nursing the second double Jameson's fronted by the band. He sipped it at first to try and calm down from the impending shakes, from both the alcohol and the playacting, then quaffed the thing, startling him.

The set ended abruptly and the boys left the stage. The house lights turned up. Fred considered bolting out the exit. But what was the worse that could happen, he asked himself. I can stick to simple questions.

George stood at the far off in the other corner of the room by the stage, holding up the curtain, beckoning Fred. He picked up the little receipt pad and pen and grabbed his almost full stout. The backstage area was well lit. A wooden, backless stool occupied the center of the space, surrounded by lipstick-red couches.

"This is reserved for you, Roger," George said, pointing to the stool.

George joined other three band members who were already slouched into the plush couches. George took the middle position, crossing his legs Indian-style, alert.

* * *

Fred tried to swing his leg around the stool, but he hit the stool leg and knocked it off its feet. He managed to hold the seat firm and wrangled his way onto it.

George said, "Are you all right, man?"

"Yeah, I'm OK." Fred fumbled for the waitress' pad, suddenly embarrassed that was all he had. "I guess I should get all of your names first."

George got up and handed Fred a sheet of paper. "I wrote everybody's names and what they play for you."

"OK, then. Why don't you tell me how you all met.'

"That starts with me," said Allen, the singer. He went into a protracted speech about how the players came on the scene one by one.

Fred's eyelids gradually thickened above his bing cherry colored nose "'Scuz me, Allen," interrupted George. Then he addressed Fred:

"Aren't you going to write any of this down, man?"

"Sure, of course," Fred fumbled around his coat pockets, reaching into his coat pockets, looking for the pen.

George uncrossed his legs and leaned forward. A stagelight hanging from the ceiling caught his face, forming a harsh shadow across his thin nose and emphasizing his stern expression. "I can't remember Roger, what's your last name?"

"McGuinn. Why?"

"You mean like Roger McGuinn of the Byrds? I thought you told me it was Thompson!"

"Um, I must have told you, umm..." He rubbed his eyes with his fists.

George stood up and stepped twice towards Fred. "You aren't from the Washington Post, are you?"

* * *

Fred barely made it out from behind the stage with his scalp intact. Two of the bandmembers, including the drummer, who was bigger even than Fred, had dragged him off the stool by his coat and were physically pulling him towards the back alley when George interceded.

"Let him go, guys, he's not worth getting into trouble for. Go on and get a life, you fucking drunk! I'm calling the manager."

The two men took a tighter grasp of Fred's coat and threw him onto the cement floor.

Fred emerged from the backstage curtains and was halfway through the club when the manager waved him over from behind a bar.

"Hold right there." A Polaroid camera clicked and flashed in Fred's face.

The manager ripped the paper off the print. "The next time you show your LITTLE PINKIE in here I'm calling the cops. I should call them now, but I don't feel like fucking with it. "

Suddenly the manager raised the camera again and clicked. The flash blinded Fred for a long moment. He stripped the paper off and thrust the second photo into the breast pocket of Fred's tweed jacket. "Here you go so tomorrow morning you can see what you looked like tonight. NOW GET OUT!"

* * *

It had started to snow while Fred was in Solly's. The busstop bench where he came to rest before walking back uphill to the office parking garage was covered with a half inch of wet snow and he could feel the cold moisture penetrating the rear of his pants.

He had scraped together enough, including his pocket change, to buy a pint of Wolfschmitts vodka, the kind that burned on the way down, and he took a swig from it. Who cares if I get arrested for drinking in public? The cops are too lazy to be out on a night like this anyway.

Fred was alone, but defiant. He hated Bystry for making him stay late, at Smith, Carl, Tommy for booking on him, and for losing to the accounting boy. Then, having to watch while Carson smiled and laughed with the young pretty girl in his lap. Furious because he was broke and he hadn't ever got good and drunk.

"Excuse me, sir. Are you OK?"

Fred was surprised to see a uniformed policeman out in the snow. Why can't everybody leave me alone? he thought.

"Sir. I asked you if you are alright," the cop said.

"Yeah, yeah, I'm Ok."

"I don't think the buses run this late."

"I'm going to walk up to my office in a little while and call a cab."

"Well," the cop said, "I'd like you to do that now, before the weather gets any worse."

He brushed himself off but there was a heavy coating of snow on him. He must have been on the bench longer than he thought.

"Christ," Fred cursed under his breath. He pushed himself up from the bench and felt his feet slide out from under him. He banged his lower spine on the bench seat. It smarted immediately.

"OK, sir. You need to come with me."

* * *

He sat in the little cell by himself. That's at least something to be grateful for, he thought.

The same cop fingerprinted him and led him to the cell. "We're just going to hold you for a couple hours," he said," 'til you sober up. I'll still be on then. I'll take you back up to East Street and let you off at your car."

By the time he was processed it was 2:30 in the morning and the cops were moving in slow motion. They had forgotten to frisk him or check through his pockets. They considered him a harmless drunk and not a threat, he guessed. He had the pint bottle and it was over half full. He waited carefully for silence before he unscrewed the top and took a good belt. That's better, he thought, regaining some daring.

He cursed everything. Blast Smith and Carl and Tommy for booking on him. And Carson, that young punk for beating him at his own game. And that bridesmaid for smirking at him.

Those young punks in the band for treating him like a drunk. And that manager and his fucking Polaroids. Fred wondered about the second photograph and searched around his person for it, it was in the inside pocket of his tweed jacket. He took a look at it and remorse settled on him like the snow.

Susan was going to leave him. He had been in a lot of trouble before, but not this much. He had come home early in the morning, but never stayed out all night. No explanation would be good enough.

And there was no way Bystry would keep him on after this stunt. Abandoning him with the clients sitting there. Not finishing the drawings.

All of this for a lousy half-assed drunk.

Exhausted, he stared at the picture. The flash made the pupils of his swollen eyes bright red, like lasers. Ha, he chuckled, my son will get a kick out of that.

He looked sixty-seven instead of thirty seven.

He rubbed his fists into his eyes. Tears were gathering up. He blinked and saw the photo as though for the first time.

So, he thought, that's what my son sees.



Michael Paul Groves: Poetry
Copyright ©2007 The Cortland Review Issue 34The Cortland Review