The army of waiters, in starched dinner jackets and white gloves, hovered along the walls, their eyes scanning their assigned tables, alert for any signal from the captains of industry who occupied them. Philippe’s, an impressive five-star private luncheon club for men only, was as well-known for their cuisine as their vaulted wine cellar, where members stored their private selections. Powerful business networks were formed at their tables and in their cigar lounge. No need to apply; male membership was by invitation only. There were occasional female guests, a wife, a mistress, or, on rare occasions, a businesswoman.
George Winston was a guest of William Tate, the Executive Vice President for Sales for Piper Engineering. This was his second business lunch with Tate. The first was twenty years ago when he was first hired, and it sure wasn’t at Philippe’s. He wiped his damp palms on the napkin on his lap. Not that he was worried, he was just curious. It must be something special if the meeting was at Philippe’s.
Tate signaled his waiter, who responded immediately.
“Yes, sir, Mr. Tate. How may I help you?”
“First, Thomas,” Tate said, taking his name from the polished brass plate on his jacket pocket, “please give my compliments to the chef for the delicious salmon, and then bring us two more Manhattans.”
“Of course, sir.” Thomas cleared the glasses.
“George, I hope you enjoyed your meal. Once our drinks arrive, I need to discuss something with you. You know the company is facing a few challenges right now…”
When Tate paused, George swallowed his panicky thought. “Oh, God, I’m being let go” then said, “Of course, sir. Lunch was outstanding.” Sweeping his hands, he added, “How could I not enjoy this atmosphere?”
“Ah, here we are,” Tate said as Thomas returned with their drinks. “Thank you, Thomas.” Tate lifted his drink in a toast. “Here’s to a better future.”
“To a better future. Thank you, Mr. Tate,” George replied.
They touched glasses, and Tate said, “It’s Bill, call me Bill.”
“Yes, sir, err—Bill.” Maybe this was going to be a good thing after all.
“George you’ve been with Piper Engineering for twenty-two years. Everybody appreciates the job you’ve been doing. Your stint in the Air Force, your degree in Industrial Engineering from Purdue, and then with your experience here…why George, you have no peers when it comes to selling general aviation engines and avionics. Customers trust you to know what you’re talking about. I’m aware that engineers are distrustful of salesmen in general, unless they are also engineers.
“Thank you, Bill. I know I’ve experienced what you’re talking about. But I have to admit, I enjoy the thrill of closing a sale as much as I ever enjoyed hearing the purr of an engine.” George’s confidence was returning. “Bill, you mentioned challenges we face, can you tell me more?”
“Well a month ago, the President signed the Small Plane Revitalization Act. The General Aviation Manufacturing Association (GAMA) couldn’t be more pleased. Basically, it has cleared the way for greatly reducing the certification costs for light general aviation airplanes. Those costs were killing us.” That’s opened a whole new overseas market that is dying to jump on the booming interest in general aviation. We’re rolling out two new products, a new state of the art avionics package for the PA 28’s and 34’s, and a portable engine repair kit for their Lycoming engines. George, you are going to be the driving force to build our international sales of Piper products. You are going to be the hero that moves our company out of the financial doldrums.”
“God, that’s exciting. Those models have long been the backbone of aviation trainers for the whole world.” George felt his shoulders drop and heard the audible escape of air from his lungs. He smiled, “Thank you, Bill. I, ah… I don’t know what to say.”
“Well, you haven’t heard the best part.” Tate leaned forward with his elbows on the table, getting as close to George as he could and said, : “I want you to oversee the new product rollouts. Six months to a year in each city: first Rome, then Paris, London, and Buenos Aires. This is a well-thought-out, long-range program, George. So, in three or four years, I expect to call you back to our new headquarters in Vero Beach to be Vice President of Global Sales. You’ll report to me. Your salary while overseas will be $200,000 a year plus expenses, and, of course, there will be a raise when you become VP along with shareholding opportunities. You deserve this, George. I have great confidence in your abilities and look forward to working more closely with you.”
“As do I. Thank you, Bill. I won’t let you down.”
“Now George, before we head back,” Tate lowered his voice and spoke in a slow, serious tone, “I need to be sure you will accept this position. I know that you have turned down other promotions. If you’re inclined to turn this one down too…I need to know that now. I can’t go back and pitch you only to have you drop out. I don’t know what happened before, and I don’t need to. I just need your word now.”
“You’ve got it, Bill. This is the opportunity of a lifetime, a wonderful way to wrap up my career. Thank you again.”
“Good. I better be heading back then.” They rose from the table. Tate signaled Thomas for the bill, and signed for the lunch on his tab.
“Well, Thank you, Bill. I hope the next one can be on me.”
Bill laughed, “Don’t worry about that. When you come back to the states, I’m going to make sure that happens.”
“Good, that’s a promise I look forward to keeping. Thanks again for lunch, Bill. I have one short stop to make so I’ll see you back at the office.”
“Sure. I’ll See you later.”
After a self-indulgent shopping spree at Nordstrom’s, George made his way back to the office. His secretary greeted him and said, “Sir, Mr. Anderson’s secretary called and said he had a home emergency and had to leave for the day. He tried to get you over lunch time and was sorry you’d have to make it home on your own.”
“Yeah, Andy drove today, I can catch a cab home. I hope everything’s ok. I know his son’s been having trouble.” He stood there for a moment, decided he’d clear a few things up and maybe get home early himself. But first he had to call his wife. He was bursting with his good news and he couldn’t wait to tell her.
He leaned back in his leather swivel chair. He fidgeted, twisting the phone cord around his finger waiting for her reaction. It had to be different, this time–it had to be. She picked up after three rings.
“George? I saw your caller ID, what’s the matter? You never call during the day.” She spoke quickly, her voice high-pitched.
“Relax, Shelly. Listen, Andy had an emergency at home and had to leave early, so I’ll catch a cab. I hope to be home a little early too. But listen,” His voice was racing with excitement, “I’ve got such wonderful news. I couldn’t wait. Plan on going out tonight, we’re going to celebrate!”
“Well, thank God it’s good news. But we can’t go out. I really must go over to mom’s. She called this…”
“Shelly, stop. Don’t interrupt, please. You better sit down to hear this one.” George spelled out the whole deal: lunch at Philippe’s, Tate’s offer, the pay raise, all in staccato breaths. He swung back and forth in his chair, smiling and gesturing with his hands as if Shelly could see him. “So, what do you think, babe?”
There was a long pause. Finally, Shelly said, “Oh, George, are we going to go through this again?”
“What do you mean? This is our big chance! I’ve never felt so proud. The company has honored me with this opportunity, hon…come on! Shell, I’ve rejected two promotions because of your objections before, and you know it. This is the big one, Shell, you can’t do this again!
“George, you know how I feel about traveling away from my parents, I just can’t do it…
“For Christ’s sake, Shelly, did you not hear me say I’ll be making two-hundred grand a year? Did you miss the Paris and London bit?”
“Oh, I definitely do not want to go overseas!” “I’m very uncomfortable with all this, George. I can’t do it. Are you sure you really have to do this?”
“What the hell kind of a question is that? This is my life, Shell, my one big chance. Don’t you understand? I’ve been tagged! We’re looking at VP in Vero Beach in a few years! We can bring your parents down, then we can retire when were ready.”
“George, think about it, every time you tell me they’ve tagged you, it feels like I’ve been run over”
“Christ, Shell, I’m sitting here on cloud nine and you sound disgusted…”
“This is your job, your precious company, George, not mine!”
“That’s bullshit, Shelly. Listen to me–”
“George, will you ever accept me for what I am, and not what you want me to be?”
“Yeah, well I could ask you the same thing, Shell.”
“You’re too upset. I will not talk to you when you’re like this.”
She hung up.
He slammed the receiver down. Damn her. She does this every time. She’s got me so uptight; I won’t be able to do anything. I might as well leave now.
He tore open his shopping bag, pulled out his purchases and headed to the elevator. The lobby was hosting a small crowd. He stepped outside to talk to Pete, the doorman. The sidewalk in front of the building was bustling with people at half trot.
“Sorry, Mr. Winston, it will be a while before you’ll catch a cab. Weather’s threatening to turn and cabs are scarce. I can keep trying, but if you want, there’s a bus due any minute now right across the street. There’s a bit of a line, but it may get you home faster.”
“Oh, hell, why not, it’ll be a perfect end to my day––riding a bus. Thank you, Pete.”
George crossed the street in a funk. Maybe someday he’d laugh at all this, but he was pissed. For the first time in twenty years, he had to stand in line for a bus. This whole scene was dampening his promotion-fueled euphoria.
Startled by a sudden clap of thunder, he raised his eyes to the darkening sky. Crap, now it was going to rain on his parade. Of course. He could smell it in the cool breeze. What else could happen today? Umbrellas came out, the bus line commuters mumbled and shuffled closer together, as if that would keep them dry. He dismissed a prick of self-consciousness as he turned up the collar of his new $1700 Burberry Sandringham trench coat. Relax, he told himself, I doubt if anybody can tell the difference. The hell with them. I’m movin’ on up. Nobody knows about my promotion yet, except for my wife–and didn’t she it that well—hah! Well, the hell with them all.
At the first sprinkle of rain, a bus, sculptured like a Japanese high-speed train, appeared. George said to nobody in particular, “Wow, did the city get new buses?”
“Where have you been, buddy? They’ve been running these Golden Coaches for over a year.” The man behind him had an angry tone and was staring at George’s briefcase. George shifted it to his other hand and turned away. No sense in letting this clod rag him about his Grafton English leather briefcase. It had cost him $922. It went well with the Burberry.
The cold breeze whipped up eddies that rearranged the sidewalk landscape. Paper cups rolled into new formations; newspaper pages flew in spirals before settling back onto the street, while tissues flitted above the fray, like butterflies. When the bus pulled up, George laughed at the bulbous distorted image of the driver, who looked like he was in a fishbowl. He wore dark slacks and a maroon sports jacket with an embroidered gold pocket patch. He looked more like a movie house usher than a bus driver.
When George stepped aboard, he realized the driver sat in a protected glass cube. Embarrassed, George said, “How do I pay?”
A weird monotone electronic voice emerged from a speaker the size of a quarter, mounted in the glass. “Just swipe your Golden Transit Card in the slot on the right, then move on. The correct amount will be deducted from your checking account.”
“Keep it movin’, buddy. There’s people standing in the rain waiting for you.” It was Mr. Angry.
George glared at him. “I don’t have a Golden Transit Card.” He turned back to the driver-in-a-box, “Can I pay cash, or swipe my Master Charge?”
The man elbowed him aside and swiped his own card through twice. “There! Your trip is on me. My pleasure. Now just move! The rest of us want to get home.”
George mumbled a begrudging thanks and turned to find a seat. He was surprised to find single-seat private compartments next to the windows on both sides of the bus. Then, an open center section with two seats in a row. An access aisle was on either side of the center section. This must be some governmental experimental model. Do-gooders willing to spend government money to be sure the downtrodden can share an “executive experience” No wonder the damned country is going broke.
As he walked past the cloned passengers, most in standard business attire, he chastised himself for being so grouchy. Except for that ass who bugged him in line. Hell, most of them looked just like him. Working stiffs trying to make a living. But damned Shelly had got him so upset. He should have expected it. She’ll never change, and this is not the first time it’s happened.
He slipped into his comfortable seat, checked out the video display on the back of the seat in front of him. There was a port for a thumb drive and slide-out tray for a keyboard. Damn this was more like his den, but he wasn’t about to do any office work. He needed to relax.
He knew he had married the epitome of a small-town girl. He had met Shelly when he resigned as an Air Force Captain to take this job with Piper at their Lock Haven plant. She had been raised in Dunnstown, the small town across the Susquehanna River from the Piper factory. Most of their three thousand residents were blue collar workers at the plant. When they weren’t working, the fished, hunted, and drank beer and bitched about the world when none of them had any idea of what it was like. A Saturday night movie and Pizza hut was the top fringe of their socializing.
He remembered Shelly telling him about the time her uncle took her to a major league ball game in Philly when she was a kid and how the scary city practically freaked her out. How the hell would she survive in London or Paris? He tuned his TV to the soothing Sirius Escape channel, surrendered himself into his tilted seat, and tried to put his wife out of his mind.
He had simply outgrown her intellectually and socially. He didn’t know what to do.
They had so little in common, they barely talked anymore. When they did, they argued about stupid things. She was getting downright frumpy, wearing wrinkled house dresses and sagging sweaters, and the same damned scuffed loafers with everything. She said he cared about nothing but work. They hadn’t had sex in over three months. On and on. Wallowing in life complexities had given him a headache. He surrendered to his seat, and lulled by the music, fell asleep.
George awoke with a start. It was dark, and he didn’t recognize anything. He hit the next-stop button on his armrest. When the door opened, he bolted out without asking where he was. It was pouring. A free-flowing gutter, now a small stream, bullied its way down the nearest storm drain cut in the crumbling curb. Large puddles glowed in the streetlights. He turtled into his turned-up Burberry collar, sheltered his head with his $900 briefcase, and ran. He crossed the street and ducked into the nearest storefront awning. It was a bar.
The neighborhood made him uncomfortable. Most of the stores were boarded up with plywood panels that doubled as spray-painted out-of-business signs, or had expandable-chain gates cutting off the entrance. The relentless rain splashed around his feet, carrying the stench of urine and mixed street smells. Maybe he could call a cab from the bar.
He shook the rain from his coat and wiped big droplets off his briefcase. He strode to the end of the bar and wiped his hand over his wet hair and down his face. “Bartender, could you give me a dry cloth and call me a cab please? Sorry, I don’t even know where I am.”
“Draw me a beer too, please.”
“You’ve got it, one beer coming up.”
“Wait, hold up on that beer.” George had spotted a bottle of Johnny Walker Blue on the back bar. What the hell was that doing here? He wasn’t going to ask. This may be the only good thing to happen to him today. “Make that a Johnny Blue on the rocks.”
“Yes, sir.” The impressed bartender filled the glass ceremoniously. You don’t skimp on this booze, and you don’t spill it either. “There you are sir. That will be $43.”
George threw a fifty on the bar top and turned to face the nearly empty room. He savored his first sip: smooth. Resting his elbows on the rail behind him, he looked around. Two guys at the bar looked like they had been there since noon. There was one table with two couples, and another with a fat guy in a derby nursing a draft beer. Against the back wall, a woman sat by herself, her hands folded around a brandy glass. He might as well talk to somebody.
George sauntered over, peering over the rim of his twirling glass. “Hello. Do you mind if I join you?”
When she looked up, she seemed familiar. He hesitated, then ventured, “Kate? Kate Brady?”
She stared at him for a few seconds. “Oh my God. I can’t believe it. George? You’re not George Winston, are you? From Lexington?”
“That’s me. Go Wildcats!”
“Yeah, go Wildcats. Rockbridge County High, right? You were a year ahead of me. I was a cheerleader.”
“Yes, I remember.”
George smiled and sat down. Before she could say anything, he added, “I must tell you, Kate, you could still be a cheerleader. You look great.”
“Now you are just being flattering, George.” She crossed her legs, revealing an ample portion of a lovely thigh.
“No, really. You’ve still got those dancer’s legs, too.” She let that go. “So, what brings you to this bar, especially at this time of the night?”
“I was visiting an aunt who still lives in the neighborhood. She doesn’t get out much, anymore, and she enjoys my occasional visits. I was walking home, but when it started to rain, I ducked in here. I’m only a few blocks from home anyway.”
George said, “Isn’t it a little risky living around here?” He quickly added, “I’m sorry, that was a rude question, I just assumed with all the closed shops… It’s none of my business. Sorry.”
“That’s okay. The answer is rent control. I can’t afford not to live here. I’ve been here a few years. Most of the people know me…I feel quite safe.” She smiled. “But how gentlemanly of you to show concern, George.”
Deep dimples and perfect teeth enhanced her wide smile. Her engaging blue eyes made her easy to talk with. With the posture of a model, she was stunning. George remembered her. Always had lots of boys fawning over her. Never him. But now…now she’d be mid-forties, that magical age when pretty women become beautiful. He laughed at himself. What am I feeling here? I’m being silly. “Are you married?” George asked. “Family?”
“I was once,” she said, “I had a fling with a cowboy who dragged me to Oklahoma, which was awful. It lasted only two years. I’ve been a retail clerk, sold real estate in DC, even modeled a bit—George knew it––-until I came back here three years ago. Now there’s just my aunt and I’m still single. How about you?”
George was about to answer when the bartender came to their table. “Sorry, buddy, but the cab company said it may be an hour. It’s a bad night with the storm. Can I get you folks anything?”
George looked across the table. “Kate?”
“Sure, why not?” She stretched her arms high to cast her coat off her shoulders and onto the back of her chair, a move that told George that she was indeed a model. “I’ll have another cognac, if that’s all right?”
“Of course, Kate. And I’ll have another Blue.” The bartender smiled, threw his towel over his shoulder and headed for the bar. The two of them had already spent more than all the other customers combined.
“So––getting back to your story,” Kate laughed. “Any good-looking guy like you who walks into this bar in a Burberry and orders Johnnie Walker Blue has got to have one.”
George did a double take. Well, she knows class. Should he show her his Grafton briefcase? He was being stupid now. “Very good, not many people would recognize a Burbury.”
“Remember, George, I was a model. I never owned classy outfits, but like all models, I just wore them. Believe me, we all knew class when we saw it. So, what’s your story after you left Rockbridge High?
“Well, I went to Purdue University on an Air Force ROTC scholarship, earned a degree in industrial engineering then did a six-year stint of active duty, I left as a Captain and went to work for Piper Aircraft. It was a good fit. At least until today.”
Oh, George, what happened”
He took a deep breath and launched into the whole thing. The Golden Bus, his promotion. He let slip the six-figure salary he would be making. Throughout, Kate smiled, nodded, touched him, responded with her eyes. She was into everything. When he told her how Shelly reacted to the news, she said,” Oh God, no. I can’t believe her attitude.”
“Unfortunately, it’s not the first time. She put the kibosh on a step-up to corporate headquarters five years ago, and then a year ago, I turned down a move to Lycoming Engineering for her. It’s been a bone of contention.
“Oh, George, I feel sorry for you. Piper obviously knows you’re good at what you do, and the want to move you up. It would be sinful to miss such an opportunity.
“I don’t know what to do. I know if I turn this down—I’m done. I’ll never get another chance like this.”
“And you’d be moving into a dream job.” On ‘dream,’ she threw her hands upward, fingers bursting open in a heavenly appeal. “Think of it… London, Paris, Rome.” Then, stretching across the table, she patted the back of his hands. In a throaty half-sung voice, she said, “I am so envious. You have no idea what I would do for an opportunity like that.”
George’s mind was reeling, he couldn’t help comparing Shelly to Katherine, how they’d feel on his arm at the theater in London, the museums in Paris, the ambassador’s parties in Rome. Even back here in Vero Beach to wrap up a career as VP and all that entailed. That phone call with Shelly had reinforced what a miserable state his marriage was in. It seemed like the longer they stayed together, the further they drifted apart. He couldn’t help thinking about what a new life could be like. He was at a crossroads. If only he had the courage to take control.
He stretched his right hand into the air, circling for the bartender’s attention. When he got it, he said, “Cancel that cab and bring us another round.” He reached across the table with both arms, palms up, searching for Kate. She responded by taking both his hands. When he squeezed, she returned the gesture. He couldn’t believe what he was about to do. It was now or never. They both held each other, transfixed, staring into moist eyes.
Finally, George plunged ahead. “Katie, we have to talk.”