A short story excerpted from Charlie Bonaire's Diary
By John F. Crowley
Charlemagne Bonaire left the tidy late-Victorian house and walked through swirling leaves down E. Henry Street to Wood Avenue and, as he had every work day for the past 11 weeks, stopped at the Sweet Shop for coffee regular and the Daily News, then quickened his pace to catch the approaching 7:20 New Jersey Transit train.
He did not stand out among the other commuters on the platform: 40, just over six feet, clean shaven, short light-brown hair surrendering to a bald spot, crisp white shirt, colorful tie, gray Harris tweed jacket, darker gray wool slacks. His trench coat was black rather than the ubiquitous tan, and he carried no briefcase, but otherwise he might have been a bank manager or stockbroker.
The train pulled out of Linden station and continued its northeasterly transit, through the industrial rail corridors of Elizabeth and Newark, through the desolate railyards beyond and finally the sulphuric swamps of Hudson County, paralleling the N.J. Turnpike for a while, then plunging under the Hudson River to the line's underground terminus, New York Pennsylvania Station. Charlie scanned the News but spent the bulk of his trip alternately trying to find something new in the scenery and calculating how much longer he would be working at Travel National. The trade magazine was an industry joke, an excuse for Mr. and Mrs. Hymen Klock of Long Island to jet around the world and separate travel agents from their money at seasonal "travel summits." But Charlie had needed the job, having just quit his position at Klock's successful competitor, Travel Set. The novelty of having a copy editor from the "enemy" camp had worn off quickly, and Charlie's mission -- to bring the magazine up to Associated Press style -- had fizzled. In addition to his copy-editing duties on the weekly, he'd worked hard to assemble a style guide, filled with examples of bad writing from the magazine (unfortunately, many of them Klock's), only to have the boss flip through it and toss it into a drawer with a snort.
The train slowed and stopped halfway through the Hudson tunnel, as it often did, and when the lights flickered off for a moment a nervous chuckle traveled through the morning commuters. Charlie took the moment to remember the overbooked airplane ride back from Klock's recent travel summit in Orlando. The Klocks had been bumped from first class and were in a bad mood, and drank heavily throughout the flight. They'd argued, at one point Hymen Klock calling his wife a "ridiculous drunk" and she observing that he was a "dime-store Romeo with a limp noodle." Charlie, seated nearby next to their morose daughter Monica, had burst out laughing. His stock, he was sure, was sinking in Klock's portfolio.
The train started up again but took several minutes to complete the last mile of its journey from Trenton, and as usual the more anxious commuters were already jamming the aisle, ready to make the charge down the platform and up the narrow stairway to the subways or the streets. Charlie stayed in his seat, scanning an abandoned New York Post, until the mob subsided, and at just past eight he emerged onto Seventh Avenue and headed up 34th Street. The rain and wind had washed Manhattan clean, and the Empire State Building gleamed against a blue autumn sky. Charlie walked briskly, braced, like the city's other weary workers, by the aura of grateful anticipation that is Friday's child.
He entered the Herald Square Deli and headed for his usual table. A grandmotherly waitress brought coffee before he had his coat off. "Good morning, Charlie. Usual?"
"Yes, Annie, thanks. How ya doin'?"
"I'll live. How's by you?"
"Thank God it's Friday."
"Thank God it's any day I wake up." She scribbled on her pad and turned to the cook to bellow one long word: "Two-over-easy-hold-the-whites-burn-the-bacon-wheat-toast." She put her pen behind her ear, reached into her apron pocket and produced a few little containers of half-and-half. These she put into a small bowl on the table. "The cook gave you quite a compliment yesterday after you left," she said.
Charlie opened his News to the Sports section. "That I always eat everything on my plate?"
"He says you're one in ten million."
Charlie looked over at the cook, a handsome, middle-aged Greek. The cook saw him, smiled and nodded, then went back to his grill. Charlie leaned closer to the woman. "Uh, what do you suppose he means?"
"I know what he means. Ten million people in New York, and you're the only one ever asks him to cut the whites off your fried eggs."
"Well, is that good or bad?"
She smiled and finished wiping his ashtray. "You're doin' somethin' right if you stand out in this town. Read your paper, hon."
After breakfast and a cigaret, Charlie walked up Seventh Avenue to W. 44th Street, then east, past Sixth Avenue, to a nondescript office building on the north side. He smiled at Manny, the security guard, and took the elevator to the fifth floor. He greeted the receptionist and walked back to the newsroom he shared with Pat -- the managing editor who mostly managed to do whatever Klock wanted -- and her assistant Brian, a young jock from Wyoming who thought Manhattan was Paris and Klock was the Sun King. The newsroom was empty. Charlie took off his coat and jacket, sat at his tidy desk and regarded his empty "in" basket. Usually it held a dozen or so press releases marked "rewrite" in Klock's hand or Pat's. Charlie turned his computer on, the opening move in what was now a daily game of Look Busy. It would be a short day, with the Klocks leaving at noon, as they did every Friday. Then he could take his tie off. And by three the office would be empty.
As Charlie called up the menu for the next issue, Monica Klock walked into the newsroom wearing a hideous purple suit with a big red kerchief across one padded shoulder. With her black hair and long, blood-red fingernails she looked like a priestess at a black mass. "Oh, you are here. My father would like to see you right now, Charlemagne. Have a nice day."
Charlie turned in his seat. "Thank you. You going somewhere?"
She batted her thick eyelashes. Her eyelids were painted purple. "I'm not." She turned and headed for the ladies' room.
Charlie entered the Klocks' office, a spacious room looking out onto 44th Street but ruined by a coat of sickening light green paint. Amateurish paintings of cats echoed kitty statuary throughout the office, dominated by an immense black ceramic tabby on Mrs. Klock's desk. Its big green eyes blinked every couple seconds. The room smelled of cigarets and mothballs. Klock was alone, sitting behind his desk, his chin leaning on his thumb, looking like LBJ getting ready to send more boys to Vietnam. "Sit down, Charlie," he said.
Charlie sat down, looking at Klock's discount-store suit, his Milton Berle face, the framed photo of the Klocks with Ronald Reagan. Klock cleared his throat. "I'm never good at this, so I'm just going to tell you. I really don't think you're working out here, Charlie, and I'm going to have to let you go. I'm sure you're not happy, either." He picked up a check in front of him and held it out. "I'm giving you a week's pay. Good luck." Charlie's eyebrows went up. He regarded Klock a moment, then took the check and looked at it. It was for $427.50. The memo line read "severance." "I understand if you don't want to finish the day," Klock said. Charlie still sat, looking at the check, at Klock. Klock looked back evenly, raised his hands, palms up, and said "What?"
Expressionless, Charlie folded the check in half and put it in his shirt pocket. "Nothing. Thanks for nothing." He got up.
"Yeah, yeah," muttered Klock.
Charlie went back to his desk and collected his belongings: N.Y. Knicks coffee mug, AP Stylebook and Libel Manual, cheap black umbrella. Monica walked in with a Bloomingdale's shopping bag, open and empty. "I see you've talked to my father. I thought you might need this."
Charlie put on his jacket and coat, gathered up his things and walked past her. "Save it for Halloween, Morticia."
"I beg your pardon?"
Charlie stopped at the door and turned to her. "What do you charge to haunt a house?"
He went straight to the Chase Manhattan Bank on Fifth Avenue and cashed the check. He came back out and walked past a card table piled with dictionaries and coloring books. A sign read "All Books $1." A Jamaican-looking man in a down coat and stocking cap monitoring the business smiled at Charlie, showing two gold front teeth. Charlie nodded and picked up the receiver of the pay phone just beyond the table, wiped the mouthpiece and earpiece on his coat, rested the receiver on his shoulder and deposited a quarter. He listened for a dial tone, then punched in a number. "Yes, may I speak with Mr. Klock? . . . It's very important. Tell him it's Ronald Reagan."
A block away Hymen Klock handed his daughter a tissue. She stood before his desk, her mascara running, her shoulders shaking. "Don't pay any attention to him, baby," Klock said. "He took it out on you. Nobody likes getting fired. It wasn't personal."
"He asked me what I charge to haunt a house!"
"You should have asked how many rooms. Listen, don't give him the satisfaction. Now go wash your face. You don't want your mother to see you like that."
Klock's intercom beeped, then produced the small voice of his the receptionist. "Call on line two, Mr. Klock."
"Who is it?"
"Says he's Ronald Reagan."
Klock blinked. "Is it?"
"I don't think so."
Klock picked up the receiver. "My secretary doesn't think you're really Ronald Reagan."
"I'm not. This is Charlie Bonaire. Fuck you!"
"Oh. You must have cashed the check."
"You bet your cheap suit I cashed it."
"OK, what do you want? I'm very busy, and you've already upset my daughter."
"Too bad. By the way, where did you dig her up?"
"Don't start with me, Bonaire. What do you want?"
"I want to say that your magazine is a joke, and so are you. You don't want better writing. You want a bunch of yes-men who will kiss your ass. And you write like a fuckin' idiot."
"So now I'm a fuckin' idiot."
"You know that kid in "Deliverance" who played the banjo? He laughs at your writing."
"And what are you, you peckerhead? You weren't even man enough to say this to my face when you were in here."
"I ain't that stupid. I wouldn't put it past you to put a stop on my severance check if I told you what a colossal asshole you are."
"Same to you."
"You're wasting my time, Bonaire. Go back to Travel Set, if they'll have you. You were useless. Guys like you are a dime a dozen."
"Actually, I'm one in ten million."
"Yeah, sure. Listen, you got your money, and now you've had your little say. Are you happy?"
"Yes, I am. I'm happy. Are you happy, Hymen?"
"I would say I'm happier than you are right now."
"I don't believe that."
"How can you be happy with a limp noodle?"
Charlie slammed the receiver into the hook. He stood there a moment, taking a deep breath. He heard the bookseller chuckle. "Nice job. Was that your boss?"
"Ah, fuck 'im. You the boss now."
Charlie looked around. Fifth Avenue still bristled with people going to work. "Yeah. I'm the boss now." He sighed, then looked at the bookseller and smiled. "Hey. Any good words in these dictionaries?"
The man rubbed his chin. "Well, let me see." He picked up one of the New, Concise Webster's and opened it. "Now I think this one got ‘idiot,' ‘yes-man,' ‘limp' and 'noodle.' But I don't think it got ‘asshole.' "
Charlie chuckled. "I see. Well, I'll take one anyway." He shifted his belongings, pulled out a dollar and handed it to the man. "Thanks, buddy."
"No problem. Hey, you got your hands full. I give you a shoppin' bag I got here." He held it open. It was a Bloomingdale's.
Charlie loaded it, then offered his hand. "Thanks again," he said. "I'll see you around."
The bookseller shook Charlie's hand and served up a golden smile. "Have a good day, Mr. Reagan."
(c) 1997 John F. Crowley