No Frigate Like a Book

No Frigate Like a Book

Stephen O’Connor

There was only one thing I hated about my new job at Worcester Associates, a wholesale fashion retailing distributor. They always began the work week with a 7:30 am meeting. And so, there I was, the recently hired Director of the Graphic Arts Department, sitting with five other managers at a conference table, three men and two women, at my second such meeting. While we waited for the boss, the women chatted, sotto voce, about the relative merits of some local nail salons. The men looked at their phones or texted people who were fortunate enough not to be present, while I perused my pocket edition of Emily Dickenson’s poems.

At 7:34, the boss, Mr. Randolph Worcester, the eponymous CEO and grandson of the founder, breezed into the meeting with his air of energized and optimistic efficiency. He was smiling, not a polite business smile, but the full chopper display. He loved his life, and he wanted everyone to know it. “Gooood morning! Ho ho! Pastries! Good job, Donna!” Donna was his P.A. He was obviously in love with her, but that was none of my business, I thought, as I stuffed the book of poems into my suit jacket pocket.

He poured a coffee at the side table and picked up a cherry-filled Danish pastry, fearing not a bit what looked like a good 450 calories. He set the pastry on a napkin beside his iPad, and coffee in hand, took his seat with a satisfied sigh, like a king assuming his throne. He peered about at his subjects and he sipped his coffee. Then he asked, “Everyone have a coffee? More pastry?”

A pale guy named Ted Moody, head of I.T., with a body like a Franklin stove and a wrinkled white shirt, rose saying, “I’ll grab one more before we get started.”

“Did everyone have a good weekend?” the boss inquired. “I had a great weekend! A friend and I went skiing up at Mt. Snow, stayed at the Summit Lodge. Freekin’ beautiful! Saturday night cocktails by the big stone fireplace. Winterfest was going on up there, and they had a torchlight parade, fireworks! Beautiful!”

We were probably all thinking the same thing. The “friend” was his amiable P.A. But, as I said, that was his business, and his dissembling over his office affair was not the reason I dreaded these meetings. That was coming.

“Yeah!” said Clayton from Human Resources, “Mount Snow! I love the music they pump through the loudspeakers on Beartrap while you’re tear-assing down the mountain.”

Worcester waved the idea away, “Nah, you gotta go on the North Face. Ungroomed trails! Steepest in the Northeast! What a rush! So, what did you folks do? Shirley?”

Shirley of the hot body said, “Not much. My boyfriend Rick and I went into Boston Friday night. Had dinner at the Top of the Hub. Saturday, we went to the PEM. There was an exhibit called, oh what was it, ‘The Raven’s Many Gifts: Native American Art of the Northwest Coast.’ Of course, Rick is really into all that stuff, so I learn a lot just doing it with him.”

I’ll bet you do, I, and probably everyone else at the table thought.

“Great!” Worcester enthused. “Ted?”

Ted swallowed a mouthful of Danish and said, “Yeah, my daughter and her husband were visiting from New York. He’s into all that microbrew business, so we went up to the Gritty Auburn Brew Pub on the Androscoggin River. Good band was playing—the Juke Joint Devils—Blues band out of Portland. Really good stuff. We hung out there for a while and had dinner on the way home at the Portsmouth Brewery. Louise doesn’t drink, so she was our designated driver. And of course, she had everything on Facebook within minutes.”

“Cool!” the boss said.

Suddenly it felt very warm in the room. I saw that this was going to go down the same way it had the first week. The CEO was going around the table, Clayton, Ted, Megan. And everyone had spent the weekend doing things. You see, I’m a very boring person. I had read about a hundred pages of a P.D. James novel, walked the dog, and then finished rereading The Sun Also Rises. What can I say? My ex-wife used to make me do a lot of things, and go a lot of places, where there were lots of people. Now that she’s found someone more exciting, I like to read in my free time. My nervous tension rose as my turn approached.

“Nat? What about you? What did you do this weekend?”

O shit. “Me? Not much, really. Walked the dog out in the woods near my house, and did some reading. Oh, and I watched a couple of episodes of Rumpole of the Bailey.”

Worcester nodded, taken aback. “Right. I enjoy a weekend like that once in a while, kind of, what do they call it cocoon?”

I nodded. “Yeah.”

“Once in a while.”

“Yeah. You know.”

“Sorry,” Shirley said, “Rumple what? What is that?” She glanced at the others, shaking her head, one corner of her mouth smiling and one eye squinting in that look that said: What the fuck?

“Rumpole. Of the Bailey. The Old Bailey, the criminal court in London. Rumpole is a barrister . . . at the Bailey. He’s…he’s pretty funny.”

“Okay.” Worcester glanced at his watch and said, “Seems like everyone had a good weekend then—reenergized! Refreshed! So, let’s go over the sales numbers for January, and then Ted has some clarifications on the reorganization chart. Megan?” Megan passed out some papers and began.

I could describe the following Monday morning meeting, but suffice it to say, it was more of the same, the only difference being that I was more nervous. I was actually beginning to sweat as my colleagues recounted their weekend adventures. I had nothing but my dog and Rumpole again, and I could see that they had stopped listening to me, and worse, that I was in danger of becoming a joke within the company.

The week after that, Megan had returned from a vacation. She and her husband had gone skiing—in the Alps! In describing her vacation, she used the word “awesome” a lot. It took her five full minutes, and then Worcester went around the table again. “What did you do? How was your weekend?”  Shit. Shit. Shit. I couldn’t tell them that I had walked the dog in the woods again on Saturday and read The Boston Globe and baked cookies on Sunday. What was I to do? I had to lie. “It was pretty wild,” I said.

“What?” Ted Moody asked, “Did you watch three episodes of Rumpled Doily?”

I laughed along like I found his wise-ass stupidities entertaining. “No, no, I wasn’t around this weekend. A guy I went to college with, Larry McKean, he was a biology major—really into evolution; anyway, he ended up doing graduate work at the University of Chicago—now he’s at Yale doing some advanced studies in Biostatistics and Paleontology. So, he called me last week. They had been on a dig in New Mexico and uncovered a skeleton . . .  of a T Rex.”

“Holy crap,” Worcester said.

“Awesome!” Megan added.

“He was pretty excited. He said, ‘You gotta get out here!’ So, I flew out to Santa Fe late Friday night. He picked me up, we grabbed a few hours sleep and headed out to the site. The skeleton was still embedded at the bottom of this big, like, crater, but they had it half uncovered, and were sweeping it off. It’s really something to stand there with some Navajo Indians and look down at the remains of an enormous predator who died in that spot sixty-five million years ago.”

I had their attention. Shirley leaned forward, her bosom swelling. “How big was he?” she wanted to know.

“Larry said he would have stood thirty feet tall in life.”

I had read an article in Smithsonian about T Rex over the weekend.

“Whoa! Quite an experience!” Worcester said, looking around the table to encourage their admiration. “Did you take any photos of the sucker?”

“Of course, yes, on my Nikon. I’ll bring them in.” I was pretty sure I could produce something convincing— photo shop a couple of T Rex photos, and get myself in the picture, too, which I did, for the next meeting.

John Mortimer once said, “The only rule I have found to have any validity in writing is not to bore yourself.” The same is true of storytelling in general. At the next meeting, they will be surprised to learn that I have just bought a ticket to Spain so that I can run with the bulls in Pamplona next July. Thank you, Ernest Hemingway. Being an avid reader is a vicarious sort of existence, but it does prepare one to run with any kind of bull.


One Response to No Frigate Like a Book

  1. Malcolm Sharps says:

    This time it’s more of an awkward embarrassment than a tragic flaw, but the theme of the well-meaning misfit is at the heart of much of Mr O’Connor’s longer fiction. We all need to read more of it.