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Pender couldn't get his mind back into his body. He could see himself in profile, striding through the office bay, but he couldn't feel his feet touching the floor and he couldn't hear anything but the vague whistle in his ears, the tinnitus that had been there from the first week of rifle training long, long ago. The cubicle farm floated in and out of focus, like a dream. His scalp tingled as if his hair was standing on end.
He recognized it. An adrenaline surge, like working a jungle trail in pitch darkness, hoping to hear Charlie before he heard you.
Except this walk was in daylight, in the full upright position, and when he got to the end of the hall, he was going to get shot. Not with a bullet. With a termination notice.
The most worthless, miserable, stupidest empty suit in the Global Media executive corps was finally getting his chance to fire Pender.
Charles Jamison Blue pretended to scrutinize something on his computer when his assistant announced Pender's arrival. He signaled with one hand that he was busy, like a lord instructing a peasant to remain standing and try not to stink.
Pender waved back like a guy who couldn't give a shit and took a chair at Charles Jamison Blue's conference table. From the table you were supposed to gaze in wonder at his wall of honors, which included his degrees and awards and, in the center of it all, a framed photo of Blue shaking hands with President Reagan. But Pender didn't look at the wall of honor. He looked out the window. This year, 2008, had been rough. The divorce. The economy going up in smoke. Two wars being waged. The publishing business in a death spiral. The world in chaos.
"Have a seat, Pender," Blue murmured as he punched his keyboard. He waited a moment before turning to face Pender. It was one of his games. Pender was supposed to think Blue didn't see him sit without permission. In Vietnam you'd just shove a frag up the ass of an idiot like Blue and be done with it, but here in civilization you had to let them run things, even when they ran them into the ground. Everything Blue knew about publishing was on a spreadsheet, and his only deeply held belief was that making his budget numbers every quarter would keep him highly paid and employable, which was all that mattered. Ass-kissing frauds like Blue were devouring American businesses from within, like giant tapeworms passing through an organism without vision or thought, just a relentless appetite.
Blue finally turned to Pender and smiled widely. He was wearing a hundred-dollar pinstripe shirt and his Ivy League tie, a striper in the colors that other Ivy Leaguers would recognize, a sartorial version of the secret handshake for the snobbery elite. His Savile Row suit coat hung like a precious tapestry on the back of his door. Pender laughed. Despite a thousand dollars' worth of clothing and a two-hundred-thousand-dollar education, Blue was just a fat, paste-eating kid who had become a fat, incompetent man.
"I'm sure you know why we're here." Blue said it like a teacher preparing to discipline a miscreant pupil.
"I do. No need for speeches. Just give me the paperwork." Pender said it without looking at Blue. The man's arrogance and stupidity had always brought out the worst in Pender, and today there was a volcano brewing in Pender's head. Today, his worst wouldn't just be an insulting remark or an untimely smirk. Today, what he'd really like to do is push Blue's sneering face through the glass top of his completely empty desk.
"It didn't have to be like this, Pender."
"I agree. You could have gone into some other field, and all these magazines would still be healthy."
"I didn't cause the recession. And I tried to save you from yourself."
Pender shook his head. "For five years you've been cutting pages and cutting people and raising rates. What did you think was going to happen?"
"Just following company policy. If you'd done the same thing we might still have a place for you."
Pender focused on Blue's immaculate desk to keep his anger at bay. He had defied Blue's brainless edicts from the start, often going over his head in the company to do so, more often just ignoring him. It kept the magazine strong, which made their relationship even worse.
"Anyway," Pender said, "who tells me about health insurance and severance pay?"
"You can pick up a severance packet in HR when you leave. We'll mail you whatever else. Don't expect much in severance, though."
"Twenty-five years doesn't get much love anymore, huh?"
"The old days are long gone, Pender. You never understood that."
"I understood more than you think. What I misunderstood was, I thought it was about profits. It's not. It's about something even baser, though I'm still not sure what that is."
Blue struck his Ivy League MBA pose, straightening his back, sucking in his gut a little, holding his head erect so he could look down his nose at Pender like a learned scholar patiently coaxing intelligence from a naive student. "It is about profit, but not the glacial growth you old guys look for. These magazines? Yesterday's news. They'll never operate at more than a ten or fifteen percent margin ever again. Time to move to some other field. Information technology. Digital communications. It's a new world, and you aren't part of it."
Pender stirred. "I find honor in that."
"Honor!" Blue said the word with contempt. "Business isn't about honor. It's about winners and losers. You're a loser."
He stood. It was an imperious gesture to a subordinate that the meeting was over. Pender slouched in his chair and crossed one leg over the other.
"So, are you going to the bathroom or have I been fired?" Pender asked.
"Nothing left but the handshake," said Blue. He tried to keep his voice nonchalant, but Pender's act was irritating him.
Pender uncoiled his six-foot frame and stood in front of Blue. Neither of them offered a handshake or tried to hide the contempt he had for the other. "I wish I could say it was a pleasure working with you," said Blue. "But it wasn't. You are an arrogant, egotistical, self-righteous editor, and you've been earning this termination from the time I met you."
"Well, thank you," said Pender. "I can only hope I irritated you as much as you have me. It's a lot to hope for, but I do."
"There you go again. Do you even understand what you've done to yourself? Your wife left you. You've got no job. You're sixty years old in an economy where forty is ancient. You'll never work in magazine publishing again. You won't be trotting off to Paris to speak. No more interviews on CNN. You've won your last award. You've chaired your last meeting. All that's left of your life is an empty house. Get it, Pender? You're dead."
Blue put his hands on his hips and rolled on the balls of his feet, a corporate warrior's victory dance. Pender stared at him with an expression that began as curiosity and morphed into an intensity that made the executive uncomfortable. That was the very moment that it came crashing into Pender's head with a force that pushed out all other thought. That was when he realized everything he had done, everything he had believed in, everything he had wished for had been truly and completely corrupted in the space of his adult life. This company was a lie. America was a lie. He was a lie. The truth was Charles Jamison Blue, standing in front of him like a braying jackass. Rage clouded Pender's vision.
"You can pick up your separation kit in HR," Blue said. "Go on, now. We're done here."
As the last syllable evaporated into the ether, months of suppressed rage burst from Pender's mind to his fist and he hit the man in his plentiful gut. It was a short, wicked left hook, thrown with the unleashed fury of an enraged genie escaping at last from a bottle. Pender's fist drove deep into Blue's diaphragm, forcing the air from his lungs. The starched impresario gasped and doubled over. Tears came to his eyes. He fell ass-first onto his chair, his lips forming a fish face as he tried to feed air into his lungs. When he could finally breathe, Blue wept tears of frustration and anger.
Pender watched, mesmerized. He couldn't believe what he had done. He was astonished to see a grown man cry from a single punch. He could still feel his fist driving into the fat man's middle, could feel the flesh give way like it was made of pillows and water balloons. Dimly he understood this was certainly the end of his career. This was the end of everything.
He tried to get his mind and body working again, tried to shake off the numbing reality of the situation, tried to think of something positive that could come of this.
"At least I'll never have to take shit from a brainless twit like you." He was looking at Blue, but he was saying it mostly to himself. It wasn't much of a reward for the sacrifice of a career of journalistic achievement and industry celebrity. Menu was a perennial award winner in the business magazine industry, and Pender, its celebrated chief editor, had become an industry icon, one of the most sought-after speakers for events in the restaurant and hospitality business, and a go-to expert for general media reporters working on stories in the field. He had seen the world from first-class airline seats and five-star hotels, interviewed the greatest chefs on every continent, been quoted by television and newspaper reporters. And now, it was over. Just like that.
Pender straightened up and left Blue's office. He picked up a few personal belongings in his own office and left the building without stopping at HR. Strong winds caught the exit door and banged it shut behind him as if a giant iron gate had closed. Pender imagined a massive deadbolt sliding into place, banning him to a raw wasteland where he would wander alone for the rest of his days.
"I bet you're glad this is our last appointment, eh, Doc?" Pender smiled as he said it, but there was a sardonic veneer to his tone, like always. The wiry middle-aged man across the coffee table from him shifted uncomfortably.
"I'm not a doctor. I'm a licensed social worker. Why should I be glad this is our last appointment?" The therapist stayed with the standard script, which bugged Pender. Answer questions with questions, say nothing definitive, bill an hour for forty minutes of work. Accomplish absolutely goddamn nothing.
"You always seem relieved to see me go." Pender didn't look angry when he said it, but there was always that door, waiting to swing open.
"I had hoped we would have made more progress by this point," the therapist admitted.
"You're too modest. It's been a couple months and I haven't hit anyone. It's a miracle. I've been rehabilitated."
"I don't appreciate your sarcasm. You have an anger problem. You're here because you hit your boss. You said yourself you're so angry you have trouble sleeping at night."
"Actually, it was my boss's boss, and he wasn't a real person so much as a horse's ass who thinks it's cool to shit and eat from the same hole."
The counselor winced. "No matter what you think of someone, you can't go around hitting them."
"That's my point," said Pender. "I don't hit people anymore. Even people like Little Boy Blue who really should get popped now and then. I've just said no. You've cured me. Thank you. Thank you."
The therapist sighed. "Your sarcasm isn't constructive. If my report says you're a danger to others, you could face serious charges. You have a lot to lose."
"Come on, we both know that's not true." Pender paused and looked about the small office, the stuffed book shelves, the placid wall art, the soft light fading to shadows at the perimeter. The therapist waited for him to speak, all technique, all the time. It pissed him off.
"We're just here so the company can say they did something if Blue decides to sue," Pender said. "You agreed to eight sessions with me because it's easy money. Eight sessions isn't enough to establish how regular my bowel movements are, let alone how psychotic I may or may not be. I'm here because I have nothing better to do."
"You may face assault and battery charges," said the therapist.
Pender smiled his sarcastic smile again. "Maybe I pay a fine, do community service, apologize. C'mon, it wasn't the crime of the century. The crime of the century was what Chuckie and the other stiffs did to that company."
"Wise up. If they press charges, you won't ever get another job in your chosen field."
"I'm not going to get another job in my field anyway. That's one thing Blue had right. I'm sixty years old and the magazine industry is dead. It's 2008. The financial crisis? Maybe you've heard about it? No one hires experience anymore. It's all about saving money. But don't worry, I'm not going to hit anyone. I shouldn't have hit Blue, as much as he deserved it. As good as it felt. I shouldn't have. I knew it right away."
"Yet you still got into a set-to with those canoeists." The counselor leafed through his notes. "Yes, just before our first session. You were in a canoe race and they bumped into you. You tracked them down and ... same thing, yes? You smashed their paddles and begged them to hit you. It's a pattern."
"They didn't just bump into me. They capsized me and left me upside down in the river. They laughed about it. Isn't that in your notes? What kind of notes do you take? To qualify as a rational man in your estimation, must I accept their assault and suck on it?" "There were alternatives to violence. You could've registered a complaint with the police or with the race managers."
"Come on. I say this, they say that, the cops don't know who's telling the truth. The punks walk away laughing. My way, they'll think twice before they ram another canoeist. Society is better for what I did."
"Mr. Pender, it seems that whatever you do is fine. It's the world that's wrong."
"How am I wrong here? Someone bullies you and you have to take it? So Blue can taunt me to my face and get away with it because if I respond, I'm wrong? Do I complain to HR? The company just fired me. HR doesn't care unless I have grounds for a lawsuit. So I'm supposed to just take it, like a good little office boy, and he does it again to the next guy?" Pender took a breath and tried to relax.
"Same with the goddamn canoeists. They knocked me over and laughed about it because they've always gotten away with it, thanks to people like you. The only thing that's illegal in our society is standing up for yourself when these petty little shits work the cracks in the system."
"How long have you felt like this?"
"Since I came home from Vietnam to a country run by a bunch of phony, draft-dodging cowards." Pender shook his head. "Goddamn. I thought everyone was there, but most people were back here, getting the good jobs, partying, getting laid."
"That's a long time to carry a grudge."
Pender shrugged. "Most of the time you bury it. Just put it in a dark corner of your mind and get on with things."
"What's different now?"
Pender thought awhile and smiled ironically. "The anger's all that's left. All the things I focused on all these years are gone. My career. My wife. My daughter's on her own. I have money in the bank, but in every other way, I'm bankrupt."
Bewilderment swept over Pender's face. "Where did it go?"
The therapist's eyebrows arched in question. "You have money and freedom. How bad can it be?"
"I'm sixty years old, and I don't have a reason to get up in the morning. And when I get up, I have no place to go."
"Have you considered taking up a hobby or volunteering? Or maybe traveling?" Pender shrugged. "I'm planning a trip. But it's not like I have a place I'd rather be. It's that I can't stand it where I am."
The therapist stared at him for a long moment. "Where are you going?" he said finally.
"I'm heading up to Ontario. I'm going to spend a month or so in a canoe wilderness called Quetico."
"And after that?"
"Who knows?" said Pender. "I won't be coming back here. Maybe I'll take a train to Prince Edward Island, poke around 'til I get bored or someone runs me out of town. I could go on to Paris. I think I'd look good in a beret, sipping coffee at a sidewalk table, maybe faking like I'm an artist up on Montmartre. What do you think?"
"Canoeing by yourself sounds dangerous. Aren't there bears and wolves up there?"
"You never see the wolves, and the bears are mostly shy, like big dogs. I've been soloing up there for years. This is just a longer stretch than usual. I'll have one break in the monotony. I'll be meeting an old girlfriend for a few days. I haven't seen her in forty years."
"A romantic liaison?"
"No. I'm looking in on some old friends on this trip. When I found out Annette was up in Atikokan, I added her to the list. She agreed, so we're meeting at her favorite island."
Excerpted from "Alone on the Shield"
Copyright © 2018 Kirk Landers.
Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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