Halloween was a week away. Pumpkins at the grocery store, cardboard witches in the drug store window. Joe figured he’d get some candy corn and those bags of puffy peanuts in case kids came by - and he wondered if Mom would remember. Pick up a bag for her. Maybe stop by the house in the afternoon, remind her the doorbell might be ringing tonight.
But maybe she’d be having a good day. Maybe he’d find her making caramel apples.
He was standing outside the office building, smoking a cigarette. Lunch was done and it was sitting well. Itwas a warm afternoon by October’s standards, and the heavy coats hadn’t come out for keeps. The secretaries and clerks were taking their time heading back. Joe thought he recognized a girl who worked on sixth coming his way, but she walked past without entering the building. She gave him a look, though. Maybe trying to place him too. Maybe wondering why he looked like he knew her. Who knows, he thought; marriages out there probably started with less. He ground out his cigarette and headed inside.
The elevator had thick quilts hanging on the sides - they’d been moving construction equipment up all week. The operator apologized for the condition of the car. “It’s all the work they’re doing up there,” he said. “They’re supposed to take the freight but they don’t.”
“‘S’ okay,” Joe said. “But I’d probably feel the same way if they did it to my office.”
The elevator operator nodded. “They don’t think this is my office. They think I’m a passenger with a Napoleon complex.” He slid his hand in his coat. “Where’s my Elba, that’s what I want to know.”
Joe got off on the usual floor and walked down the hall. He could smell Clarence’s pipe tobacco. He always lit a fresh bowl after lunch. Clarence looked up when he entered, cleared his throat.
“How was lunch.”
“I spared the pickle again.”
“Why don’t you ask them not to give you a pickle?”
“There’s no point, Clarence. There’s just no point.”
He was back at his desk, wondering whether he should start with the design for a bowling alley client or open the mail and hope there were checks, when Clarence entered his office and handed him a match. He did that more and more these days; God knows where he got them. It was as if this was some sort of test.
Joe looked at the matchbook.
“I don’t know if I’m supposed to shave with a bayonet or think the blades are good because they’re made from gun-steel.”
“That was my impression as well.” Clarence picked up the matchbook from the desk where Joe had dropped it. “Cheap paper, too. It came apart when I struck the match.”
“I thought you used kitchen matches for your pipe.”
“I do. Just testing the construction.” He turned the book over. “I’m trying to figure out the logic of the pricing. One would think double-edged blades would cost more, since the utility of the product is greater. But the pricing suggests the single-edged blades are better.”
“Don’t burn your brain out on the mysteries of shaving,” Joe said. “You came in here for something else.”
Clarence blinked. He nodded, and sat. He never sat in Joe’s office. He usually stood, said his piece, and left.
“I did,” he said. “It’s about the New York deal.”
“And?” Joe said.
“Well, I wanted to know where it sits at present.”
“Can’t say. Be good if I could. I’d sleep better. For all I know Junior signed a deal and he’s waiting for Thanksgiving to give us the news. Here’s a big turkey, boys, and some cigars and a bottle of Golden Wedding. Oh, and I sold the company.”
“So you don’t know.” Clarence sat back. He may have relaxed by a few degrees; Joe found it hard to tell. “There’s nothing you’re not telling me.”
“No, but that doesn’t mean there will be something I’m not telling you. Depends what I’m told. No news is just that.”
“I’ve been thinking about this. It would make sense to keep me on, from the standpoint of continuity with the customers, knowledge of the territory, that sort of thing. But that would mean making an additional hire, from their perspective. If they hollowed out the office here, their agents could be put in at no cost to payroll.”
“And me?” Joe smiled. “What would they do with me?”
“Why, I’m sure you’d be replaced, but after an interval. You don’t know how they do things.”
“Yeah, that strange New York style. Look, it’s just matches. Matches and pencils and pens and some calendars. There’s no secret formula. If they buy the company, they buy the territory, and instead of using the printers we use now we use their guys. Instead of using our sample book we use theirs. Instead of putting our name at the bottom we put theirs. Unless they have some secret bookkeeping procedures that mean I have to enter everything in Roman numerals and use an abacus, I don’t see why they’d put in someone else. Who’d want to move?”
“You have a point.”
“Besides. I know how they do things.”
Joe picked up the Marlin matchbook and held it out, edge towards Clarence.
“This is one of theirs.”