The End Is Near
My last five days in the Northwestern drafting room were endless. No one spoke to me, or to each other . . . silence. I began to miss old Ed. He didn’t say much, but at least he moved around. The August afternoon’s sun warmed my back. I plodded on, filled with regrets, and desperation to escape. God, how I wanted out of there, and worse was yet to come ─ these next few days, and then the last one. I would have to say goodbye to Crumrine. What would that be like?
I tried to concentrate on work, erasing lines, and printing letters, dates. I thought of ancient drafters who had come before me. Had they felt like this, those ten and twelve hour days, including Saturday, like something out of Dickens, but at least they had each other. Comrades filled the empty desks around me, visors on their heads, quill pens in hand inscribing graphic elegance, those tiny, perfect letters with their fancy serifs. Tiny cattails drawn where tracks passed though a swamp. Sometimes I tried to imitate their work, to match those perfect letters penned with such immaculate perfection.
It was almost noon when I glanced up to check the wall clock behind Snitzer’s desk, and met his gaze. It seemed as though he had been waiting for me to look up. He crooked a finger becoming for me to come before him. Christ! What was it now? He had some work I’d finished on his desk.
“I want to show you something.” He unrolled a scroll across his desk to show a section I’d corrected. “I can see you’re trying to imitate your predecessors.” Snitzer pointed to my serifed lettering. There was no question my work was of lesser quality that those who came before me decades earlier, though they seemed adequate, to me.
“We don’t use serifed letters anymore. Not since the thirties. Even if we did, your skills are far below the capabilities of those who made these drawings. Let me make it very clear to you. I want block letters, vertical, no pitch, straight up and down. You understand that?”
“Good. No serifs. Keep it clean and simple. Nothing fancy. I’m aware that working here has been an inconvenience to you . . . ” Snitzer paused. I could feel Frank and Joe absorbing every word with satisfaction.
“You have just four days left here, David. Do you think it possible that you might show up every day, and do your simple job the way myself, and Joe and Frank explained it to you? Or would that be too much to ask?”
“No sir. I’ll be here every day, and do the best I can.”
He shook his head, as if in sadness. “Go on back to work.”
My face was burning with embarrassment. The Katzenjammers stared down at their work as I passed on my way back to my desk. I knew they’d love to rub it in, and probably would. What would they say? My leaving in a few days must have galled them. They had reason to be jealous of a young guy, single, nice car, college. I guessed my life looked pretty good to them. It should have been. How had I failed with such finesse? I’d learned one thing for sure. I’d never work a job like this again, no gold watch in my future.
Snitzer always left for lunch before us, part of his routine. The Katzenjammers opened their sack lunches as I capped my pen, said nothing as I passed by on my way to take an elevator to the first floor soda fountain for a grilled cheese sandwich, and a Pepsi. Vern was there. We just said, hi. No other words were needed, and I ate in silence at the crowded counter. Time passed faster when outside the drafting room, then slowed as if the clock hands were immersed in cold molasses on return. At last four-thirty came. I cleared my desk and was the first to leave.
* * *
I found Dearie was in the kitchen when I got back. “Damn. I need a drink,” I sat down on a chair beside the dining table.
“Coming up.” She handed me a glass and plopped an ice cube it. “Bad day at the office?”
“Can’t get any worse.” I told her what had happened as she poured us both a healthy shot.
“It’s only four more days,” she said. “Then you’ll be out of there. And we have something to look forward to.”
“Tomorrow’s Charlie Chan night at the university. Her answer caught me by surprise.
“They’re showing, Shadows Over Chinatown. It’s one of Sidney Toler’s last, I think—came out in 1946.”
“Great. Something to live for.”
“Dave, you’ve got your whole life to look forward to. These ten weeks in Chicago are a moment, just a quick blink in the eye of time.”
“It doesn’t feel like that to me. I’d hoped to go home feeling like I’d had some kind of a success, with Linda, or with work, or something.”
“Yes, I know. This thing with Linda . . . tough.”
I’d read somewhere that lonely people were depressing. Was that me now? I’d picked up on Dearie’s sadness a few times when she was sober, but she never spoke about her feelings, other than a verbal jab or two at Norman.
“Dave, you can’t be sure if your relationship with her is really over.”
“Maybe so.” I wondered if she meant this for herself as well as me, but I had not seen Norman since arriving in Chicago, and I doubted he would ever change his mind about her. Norman wanted kids, and she was not about to risk her life to satisfy his need.
“You never know. Soon you’ll be back in school with all your friends, your senior year. You’re going to be just fine. You’ll find another girl, or maybe come back here next year and make things up with Linda. You’re a good man, David, and creative. I wish that I could make you see it. Youth is wasted on the young.” She sighed. “They never see the value of the gift.”
“We need the gift to stay alive,” I said. “If we were older, youth would kill us.”
“Um.” She nodded affirmation. “Yes. I’m older, and your words are truer than you know. Sometimes the days–”
“I don’t know. The years pass faster, and yet sometimes every day seems longer, endless, boring.
“Yes. I know exactly what you mean.”
“I’m going to miss you, Dave.” A smile slipped from her face before she turned away. I sat there with the scotch and watched her cook a simple dinner, that we shared in silence until Dearie spoke. “I’m going out to have a couple drinks with Beth tonight. You ought to try and get some extra sleep. Confucius say, ‘Sleep best escape from yesterday’.”
I gathered up our dishes as she went into her bedroom, closed the door and changed. She came back out dressed in a sky-blue blouse and matching knee length skirt, with an expensive looking purse in hand. “Take this before you go to bed.” She handed me a pill. “To help you sleep. I’ll come in quiet as I can tonight.”
I watched Ed Sullivan on the TV, then finished reading Naked Lunch, pulled down the bed, stripped to my boxer shorts, and took the pill. A cool lake breeze came through the doors that lead out onto the balcony. I was asleep before I had a chance to think about tomorrow.
* * *
I got through Wednesday at Northwestern without confrontation, and by three o’clock began to think it was an almost decent day. I had been working on a section of a scroll someone erased, or changed before. It wasn’t easy scraping off the inked notes indicating track more recently removed. I pressed too hard exposing part of the worn Mylar’s linen core. Ink smeared when I began to letter there, and there was no way to erase the mess. I looked around, almost expecting someone to have noticed my minuet disaster, but the Katzenjammer kids were occupied with work, and Snitzer was behind his Wall Street Journal.
Now what? I panicked. There was no way I could get the scroll past Snitzer and into the vault without his final check. Just two days left. I might get lucky, but it seemed unlikely. He’d be sure ask to see my work, but maybe . . . Damn, if I could make it through just two more days. He might not check the drawing right away. There was a pile of scrolls on top his desk. I needed time to think of how I might repair the damage, so I put the scroll aside and started working on another.
Half an hour passed before deciding graphic surgery would be the only cure for my mistake. I rolled the damaged scroll out to one end where there were several inches of blank Mylar. I’d begun to sweat, if someone noticed . . . There was no way Frank or Joe would help in any way. I kept my hands low on the table as I cut the excess border from the scroll with a large pair of scissors, and then placed the amputated section under my mistake. I cut a two inch square though both the layers, so the blank below would perfectly replace the piece removed above it.
I glanced up to see if anyone was looking my direction. No one was. I turned the drawing over and Scotch taped the blank piece to the bottom of the drawing, rolled it up again and flipped it ink side up. The patch was neat as it could be, but visible. I printed in my notes: Sold 1957 – Eastwin Corporation. Tract 157-805. I rolled the scroll up over my mistake and moved to the next change on the drawing, thirty-five scale miles away, somewhere in Oklahoma. Thursday afternoon was Snitzer’s golf day. I could wait ‘til then to put the drawing on his desk, tomorrow, on my way out, maybe . . . There was no way I could pull this off, short of a miracle. Not knowing is the strength of man and beast.
Four-thirty came. I cleared my desk, replaced the canvas cover and then headed for the door. As I passed Snitzer’s desk he asked, “You think you’ll make it in tomorrow?” Snitzer’s voice was filled with venom.
“I’m sure I will, sir. You can count on it.”
“I hope I never have to count on your attendance,” Snitzer said as Joe and Frank slunk past me.
I made no response and followed them in the hallway as an elevator door slid open. We rode down together.
“I don’t think Snitzer likes you,” Frank said with a smirk.
“Oh, really? Why would you think that?” I asked him with a poker face.
He shrugged his shoulders. “Just a hunch.”