by Harry Buschman
This is the true story of Herbert Schuster, forty seven years of age and the sole owner of Phoenix Sash and Door Company. Take a look at him critically, you will see he's very close to being a nowhere man––invisible. He has a face that is quickly forgotten once he leaves the room. But like an iceberg, the larger and darker part of Herbert Schuster cannot be seen. Therein lies the reason for this little story.
The Phoenix Sash and Door company went into Chapter 11 when the building boom tailed off some years ago, and for three years Herbert Schuster was forced to sell his windows and doors himself––on foot and by phone. He delivered and installed them, and there were times he even made them. They were lean years, meat loaf and tuna fish casserole years. His wife, Gladys, kept the company books and sent out the bills those days. She was not good at it. Some customers were overcharged and others weren’t charged at all. The company was the victim of supply side economics and Herbert looked at the world with mistrust and trepidation.
The world also looked bleak to Gladys Schuster during those meat loaf and tuna casserole years, and even now that good times are back, she wears a fixed expression of impending disaster. When the phone rings she will invariably jump and exclaim, "Oh dear! who can that be?" When she answers the front door of their house in Rye, she will open it just a crack––just enough to see who is outside.
When the boom in urban renewal and gentrification resumed, Herbert was up on his feet quickly. The Phoenix Sash and Door Company rose from its own ashes; emerged from Chapter 11, and was now riding the crest of the new wave of construction. Herbert Schuster was now a force to be reckoned with in the building industry––an entrepreneur. At important client conferences his voice could be clearly heard above the others. Like an operatic tenor in a chorus, he sang out profundities, such as, "zero tolerance stability," and "multi factorial."
He worked harder than ever. Success did not dull his ambition, and with the nagging recollection of bankruptcy an ever present memory, he poured more and more of himself into Phoenix and less and less of himself into Gladys and his family in Rye.
On this particular Friday he leaned back confidently in his tailor-made, high backed, executive posture chair, sighed contentedly and laced his fingers across his unbuttoned vest. Another great week! Eighteen contracts signed––not one of them less than $35,000. He could still cut the mustard at 47! There wasn't anyone he knew who could cut it better.
As he considered the coming weekend, his satisfaction was tempered somewhat by the thought of Gladys. She was forty-two––an unpredictable age. Multi-factorial in fact. She was on the brink of menopause and things were not going well. Then, there was Penny, their valley girl daughter, sixteen. She was on the brink of something as well. Had her own locked out cell phone and an answering machine only she could use. She wanted a Trans-am for her birthday. Finally, Albert, fourteen––prince of klutzes; his day was evenly divided between shooting baskets in the driveway, and squeezing his pimples in the bathroom.
Herbert often said to himself, "Where did such dysfunctional children come from? How could a man with my exceptional talent father such a brood?" He remembered seeing them as squalling infants behind glass in the maternity ward years ago. Both of them had been surrounded by a dozen or more identical squalling infants. Did the hospital really know which was which, or who was who? Maybe they're not mine ... too late now he thought. Had them too long to send them back––I'm stuck with them. Pretty much stuck with Gladys too.
He stretched luxuriously and closed the lid on his lap top. He stood up and ran his fingers over the polished emptiness of his blond oak desk and admired his neatness and efficiency. He buttoned his vest and coat and got his black fedora out of the closet. He put it on carefully. If it had not been for the slow advance of male pattern baldness, he would not have worn a hat on this pleasant spring day. I will have to look into that, he thought, no reason to give in to baldness at my age. Makes it harder to cut the mustard when you're bald.
Phyllis Mussel was sitting outside alone. The office was empty, but she wouldn't think of leaving before Herbert did. What a pearl! She knew where everything was, everything! She knew more about the company than Herbert did.
"Have a nice weekend, Phyllis."
"You too, Herbert––9:30 Appelbaum." She handed him the Appelbaum folder.
A tireless woman, stout of limb and fiercely protective, she was the only employee at Phoenix who knew and used Schuster's first name. He was Mr. Schuster to everyone else. She had a special shorthand speaking technique that helped keep Herbert on his toes. He had to think about the Appelbaum project over the weekend––359 hollow core doors––some with two hinges, some with three. Didn't want to let that contract get away.
He made his way to the Mercedes in parking space number one and fished in his pocket for the remote door opener. He pushed the trunk lid button instead. "Damn!" he thought, "getting to be more like Albert every day."
What I need is an outlet, a bridge––something between the company and the house in Rye. A hobby maybe––but who has time for a hobby. Maybe some kind of involvement in the community. God forbid! The less I have to do with that crowd of deadbeats the better. How about a mistress? He turned the air conditioner up a notch. Now there's an idea. "A liaison! How could I work out a liaison. I don't like the idea of sneaking around––got enough to think about without keeping a list of alibis in my head."
In this frame of mind, he pulled into his driveway and almost ran Albert down in front of the basketball hoop. The ball rimmed the basket, bounced out and landed on the hood of the Mercedes, leaving a gentle dent.
"Damn it, Albert you'll be the death of me yet!"
"Hi, Pop, Rye's playin' Stamford tomorrow."
"I'm not driving you, I've got a golf date."
"That's okay, Pop. It's an important game, Coach won't let me play anyway."
"Why am I not surprised?" Herbert mumbled. He gathered up his briefcase and the Appelbaum folder and went inside. Gladys, as usual, stood in the hall to meet him with a mixed expression of compassion and dread. Herbert always thought of it as the Chapter 11 look.
"Everything's fine, Gladys, no problems," he assured her. "Just tired, that's all. Had a very good week actually––think I'll make a martini."
"I've got a pitcher all ready for you, it's on the table by the sofa. I've got the news on the television too––bet you're glad the weekend's here."
Herbert mumbled an inarticulate thank you and hoped it sounded more sincere to Gladys than it did to him. Gladys didn't know how to make a Martini, used too much vermouth––her Martini's always tasted like something pumped out of a flooded basement. The clean fresh slam bang tang of good gin with a twist of lemon was like the bite of the north wind blowing across the steppes of Central Russia. Gladys couldn’t seem to make them that way.
He looked in the kitchen, Penny was in there. "What's gotten into her," he wondered, had a miracle occurred? "She's never in the kitchen." Then he saw a long haired pimply faced boy duck his head inside the open refrigerator door. He was dressed in clothes made for a much larger person––looked more like a clown than a human being, Herbert reflected. "What a waste," he thought, "the kid can't wait for her to get her Trans-am. Putting his bid in early."
He drifted into the living room and looked at the pitcher of Martinis. All the ice had melted.
"Stretch out and relax, dear. Dinner's not quite ready. I tuned in to the news on CNN, that's what you want, ––sorry, I didn't have any lemons, or olives, or onions, or whatever you put in those things."
He poured an oily looking Martini and stretched out on the sofa. A mistress ... hmm, what a fascinating idea. A wide eyed blonde on CNN was shaving her legs on the evening news as he began to weigh the possibilities of a liaison ... what a lovely word "liaison." He drifted off to sleep but was rudely awakened as Albert tripped over his feet on the way to the bathroom.
"Albert, must you walk across the room like a blind man?" Herbert mopped up the spilled Martini as Gladys called him from the kitchen.
"Dinner's ready, dear. Will you open the wine––I seem to have broken the cork." There it was half way down the neck of the bottle.
"Where's Penny? She was here just a minute ago."
"There's a concert at the mall. She and Lance are going to get something to eat over there. He seems like a nice boy, doesn't he?"
"Lance! His mother and father must have had high hopes ... pity ... concert, humph!" He grumbled. "How can they call them concerts? They're not concerts, they're mating rituals."
"Herbert, please––not in front of Albert."
"How come you're not playing tomorrow, Albert?"
"I need remedial help in math Pop. Coach won't let me play until I get a "C."
"Well," he mumbled. "there you have it. Bet Michael Jordan didn't need a "C" to play basketball ... got to be good at something, Albert." He sighed. He was playing golf with Ernie Schultz tomorrow. Ernie was the sort of man who would keep his mouth shut. Ernie was a swinger too––probably knew all about liaisons. What a lovely word, "liaison.' Those French! They have a name for everything.
Ernie's lie was right in the middle of the fairway, Herbert was in the weeds 100 yards behind him already ten shots over his handicap with eleven holes to go. He took a drop––no way of getting out of there. Ernie waited for him to catch up.
"Let's go hacker," Ernie shouted, "I don't have all day."
Herbert waited until he caught up to Ernie, then decided now was as good a time as any ... "Er, Ernie, you ever fool around?" he asked.
"Not when I'm playing golf."
"Well, I mean fool around ... you know, like have a liaison ... something on the side?"
"That can only mean you don't ... c'mon Herbie get real. Sure, if something comes up, I'm Johnny on the spot."
"Well" began Herbert, "I was thinking of something a little more permanent, you know what I mean."
Ernie chipped up to the green. "looka that ... three feet from the pin, beers are on you, Herbert." He looked sideways at Herbert. "You know, buddy, there's no such thing as 'a little more permanent'. You get into something like that you're in deep shit. You start lying at both ends ... a piece of advice, okay? On again off again, it's the best way." They played in silence for a while, then Ernie drew Herbert aside.
"I'm gonna give you a number to call, O.K.? Don't write it down, it's easy to remember. "EROTICA" ... got it? Repeat it back to me."
"EROTICA," Herbert repeated reluctantly. "Look Ernie, I'm not looking for a brothel, you know."
Ernie confidently teed up for the eighteenth hole, waggled his driver and smiled at Herbert. "It's an absolutely discreet and first class company, Herbie. Call them, they'll handle all the details. All you've got to do is lay back and enjoy it."
The idea festered in Herbert's mind for more than a week. He was on the point of ––his finger got as far as the "O" in EROTICA a couple of times then he'd break out in a cold sweat and put it off until later.
At the end of the second week he pulled himself together and decided to do it. He called, not from the office or from home, but from a pay phone more than a mile from either of them.
"Thank you for calling EROTICA." It was a recorded message, a throaty androgynous voice of indeterminate age.
"If you are calling from a touch-tone phone, please press one now."
"If you are calling about our weekender, press two."
"If you are calling about our overnighter, press three."
"If you are looking for our luncheon special, press four."
"If you desire technical assistance, press five."
Herbert pressed five.
"All our technical staff are busy with other clients at the moment, but your call is very important to us, please stay on the line."
Herbert hung up midway through Ravel's "Bolero." This wasn't for him––it was like calling for an airline ticket. He got back in the Mercedes and drove on to the office, almost glad that he hadn't gotten through––damn Ernie anyway ... 'Luncheon Special' indeed!
Herbert was shrewd enough to realize that a rendezvous, even a 'Luncheon Special' would require deception of a very high order, not only from his wife and family but from Phyllis Mussel and the Phoenix Sash and Door Company. He decided to get back to EROTICA some other time – he had a business to run.
Weeks passed, and the seed of dalliance was sown. It germinated in the muck of Herbert's sub-conscious. It twitched and fidgeted like a virus waiting to spring. He found himself looking at women in ways he never did before, wondering how they'd look naked. He watched their restless legs crossing and uncrossing in restaurants, marveling at the smooth and seamless expanse of nylon and fascinated by their mysterious disappearance beyond the hemline of their skirts. He even cast penetrating glances at the stocky legs of Phyllis Mussel as she took dictation in his office. An itch of eroticism would surface at the most unexpected times––the cleaning lady bending over her mop pail, for example; or Millie Ferguson, the hardware buyer searching through the bottom drawer of her filing cabinet.
He remembered, as a boy––wanting things. A bicycle, an infielder's mitt with Lou Gehrig's autograph. The desire to acquire what he wanted now was even greater. Most important to him was the nagging suspicion that maybe he couldn't cut the mustard any more. He knew it was a feeling all men face in time, but not him, not now. At the age of 47 he was just hitting his stride. He opened the door of his office closet just a little––enough to stand and critically examine his profile in the full length mirror. It wasn't all it could be, there were indications of decline, but if he set his mind to it he could convince himself that a young woman might find him physically attractive.
That was the problem with places like EROTICA, he reminded himself. A man could get what he wanted, but he'd have to pay, and when he dragged himself back to the office after a "Luncheon Special" he would never be sure he proved anything. It was a clinical procedure. The truth gradually dawned on Herbert. It was a sobering truth and one he hadn't suspected before––but should have. It was a truth that explained his anguish of the past month––he wanted someone to be in love with him!
Could it be that simple? "Who loves me?" he said aloud. How did Gladys really feel about him? Was it a drowning woman's frantic clutching at him for security, or was it the wanting of him as a man? Did Penny love him? Was she proud to be his daughter, happy to be seen with him? Or was she even aware of him? Suppose he didn't buy her the Trans-Am? How would she feel about him then? And finally Albert. Was Albert capable of loving anyone, or would he be a nestling forever––mouth forever gaping wide––waiting for a worm or a grub? Anything, so long as it was given to him.
Then there was Phoenix. Twenty six men in the shop, seven draftsmen, fourteen people in the office, and then the installers, sometimes as many as thirty installers. How did they feel about him? So long as the well didn't run dry they'd be faithful, and that's about it.
He buzzed for Phyllis.
Herbert sat with his elbows on his desk and his head in his hands. His eyes were focused somewhere in the middle of the room. As Phyllis passed before him, he sat back in his chair and made an effort to think of why he called her.
Phyllis sat in the straight backed chair at the end of his desk and looked at him quizzically.
"What's up, Herbert?"
"Oh, nothing. Just thinking, that's all."
"Oh, lots of things. You happy here, Phyllis?"
"What do you mean, 'happy'?"
"Well ... like if there was any place on earth you'd like to be, would it be here ... or some place else?"
She settled herself more comfortably in the chair, and thought a bit. "What the hell's wrong with you, Herbert?"
"I know. It's a funny question isn't it? But I was just thinking there's no place on earth I'd rather be than right here at Phoenix." He smiled wistfully and looked out the window. "That's sad, isn't it? I mean––when you think of all the beautiful places in the world I could be, I'd rather be here."
"Why don't you go home Herbert?"
"Oh no!––I'd rather be here than there."
"Can I get you a cup of coffee, Herbert? Or maybe a drink, I could fix you a drink." It flashed through Phyllis' mind that maybe she should call a doctor.
"Can you make me a Martini, Phyllis. A nice dry Martini, shaken, not stirred?"
Phyllis walked over to the small bar in the corner of the office and began making a pitcher of Martinis. Using the pretext of getting some ice from the outer office she called Mrs. Ferguson over. "Millie, quick, call Mr. Schuster's doctor––the number's in my Rolodex. I think he's taken a spell."
She walked quickly back to Herbert's office and finished making the Martinis. Herbert had that half-way look in his eye again, as though he was focussed on something in the middle distance that Phyllis couldn't see.
"Here you go, Herbert––real whizz banger of a Martini, guaranteed to pick you up."
Herbert sipped it slowly, let it roll around on his tongue. "Say! That is a good one. Here, let me pour one for you, Phyllis."
"Little early for me, Herbert––but, okay. Never too early for a good Martini I guess."
They sat looking at each other. Herbert in his custom swivel chair and Phyllis in the straight backed chair at the corner of Herbert's desk. Herbert had recovered the focus of his middle vision. "How would you like to be President of Phoenix Sash and Door, Phyllis?"
"Now wait a minute."
"No, I'm serious ... you're too good to be a secretary, Phyllis. We'd make a great team. I think I'd learn to love Phoenix even more than I do with someone like you as president. I could be CEO."
"I don't know anything about storm doors and windows ... "
"Neither do I, Phyllis. That's why we have the guys out there in the shop, they know all there is to know. All we have to do is wheel and deal."
"Just a minute, Herbert." Phyllis got up and walked outside again. Mrs. Ferguson was on the phone. "Have you reached the doctor yet, Millie?"
"No, they've got me on hold."
"Forget it, Mr. Schuster's himself again."