On the morning of the 364th day since what Rudy thought of as the ‘Duval incident’ he looked up from his desk to see Max waiting patiently outside his office door. Max hadn’t so much as cleared his throat. Rudy gave him an approving nod, wondering how long he’d stood there waiting to be noticed. Rudy didn’t know Max’s last name. If not for the white stitching in the blue patch on Max’s grey work shirt, he wouldn’t have known his first.
The older man quickly set up his step ladder and began his task, removing the clear panels covering the ceiling lights, twisting out the glowing fluorescent lamps to replace them with fresh ones.
It wasn’t that there was anything wrong with the lamps Max removed. Not yet. The lighting change represented the kind of preventative maintenance Rudy demanded. That way you never suffered the distraction of a light going bad at an inopportune time, such as during a meeting with Mr. Augustine. Rudy knew that some residents of the executive suite found the precaution eccentric to the point of freakish. Those were the same people who frequently blamed poor results on ‘poor timing’. There was no such thing as poor timing, Rudy often said. Only poor preparation. The fluorescent lights were a symbol of the kind of attention to detail required to win. If you didn’t understand that you wouldn’t be around long anyway.
Some of the staff who considered it overkill had suggested Rudy wouldn’t even be able to tell if the work had been done. To ensure this he demanded the task be performed in his presence. That way he knew the work order wasn’t reported complete without actually being executed. Max showed up each year without fail on the 25th of September or the preceding Friday should the 25th fall on a weekend. Rudy chose the 25th because after that day, due to the position and attitude of the Earth in relation to the sun, the hours of darkness would begin exceeding the hours of light. The rapidly shortening days amplified the risk of bad lighting. Doing the preventative maintenance now mitigated the risk.
“Two more home runs last night,” Max commented cheerfully. “Braves lead the league.”
Max liked to talk while he worked, a trait Rudy never understood. The older man seemed happier in his station than he should be. Glad to be there, moving furniture, changing filters. Rudy pretended to be concentrating too hard to notice the remark. He wanted to mentally rehearse his performance for his next visitors, the ones that mattered.
The woman from the service that watered his office plants had the same irritating habit. She’d gab and sometimes, not to be impolite, Rudy would answer in the briefest way possible. He didn’t know the plant woman’s name. It wasn’t on her shirt.
“Love to see them in the World Series this year,” Max continued. “They’re due.”
Unlike the plant woman, Max was punctual and quick with his work. Rudy liked that about him. But that was all. His unceasing chatter taxed Rudy’s patience. He reminded himself he only had to endure a few minutes of it a year.
Max completed the exchange efficiently, slipping the lamps he’d removed from the ceiling fixtures into the long corrugated tubes that had held the new ones. He closed his step ladder, leaning it and the replaced fluorescent tubes against the wall outside the office door. Then Max did something odd. Something he’d never done. Max removed his white plastic bump cap and sat down across the desk.
He didn’t speak. Possibly his awareness of the trespass he’d just committed left him unsure of how to proceed. He sat across the desk, uncomfortable in a comfortable chair, his cap in his rough hands, his grey hair matted from the warmth and pressure of it.
“Max,” Rudy said, checking the older man’s nametag to be sure. “Is there something I can do for you?”
This primed Max’s pump. He answered with two words. “The insurance.”
Of course. The proposed policy change had already made its way to the rumor mill where it was being ground to a powder and settling in a thin layer over the organization. The buzz had begun.
“You’re referring to the potential changes to insurance coverage,” Rudy said.
“I heard the company is cancelling our insurance when we retire.”
“Where did you hear that?”
Max guarded himself. “Around.”
Rudy would have liked to know whom among the staff flapped their gums about it. Leaks made it ten times harder to talk about upcoming changes. Leaks made it seem as if you were holding back, managing information and disclosure which, of course, you were. A long term employee like Max with less time remaining before retirement would be affected more than most.
“Mr. Hardwick? It’s been part of the benefit package since I started. Insurance for life if you put in thirty years before you retire. I have forty-six.”
Perhaps it should have been an impressive number to Rudy, just thirty-four years old himself. But it took no special talent or contribution to allow the time to pass.
“We don’t know what will happen with it yet,” Rudy said, not lying in the technical sense but not being completely honest either. In these exchanges the technicalities were all that mattered. “It’s a work in progress.”
“Don’t sound much like progress to me.”
Rudy suppressed a chuckle at this, thinking to explain the figure of speech but not bothering. “Nothing is settled. The Board has to review it and approve before anything can happen. Meanwhile you have some time to prepare, right?”
“I’m supposed to retire next month.”
Next month. No wonder he brought it up. “Congratulations then. Do you have plans for when you don’t have to work?”
“Selling the house and taking my wife to Pepsacola.”
Pensacola. Rudy didn’t know if the Pepsacola thing was a joke or if Max thought it was really pronounced that way.
“Was going to walk on the beach every night after dinner,” Max said. “A fella like me can’t afford to live on the beach, but we can drive to it in the evening.”
“That sounds great, Max.” It was a good technique, working the employee’s name into the dialogue. It softened them. “You deserve it after your lengthy service.”
Max shook his head ever so slightly. “We ain’t going to be able to do it without the insurance. I checked. It’ll cost fifteen hundred dollars a month to buy it myself. Fifteen hundred’s a lot of jack. Eighteen thousand dollars a year. I ain’t got that much room in the budget.”
Rudy knew exactly how much it cost. The entire basis for the change relied on what it cost and what it would save Pax-Jupiter at the bottom line to cancel it and pass the cost on to 61,470 retired employees or their surviving spouses. Including Max, 61,471. Max was rounding, which was forgivable. At $17,560.55 per employee, including Max, it came to $1,080,017,808.05. Just over a billion dollars. Per year. And the beauty of it? These dollars were accrued for already. This policy change would release that astounding sum. It would fall straight to the bottom line five days from now, just before Pax-Jupiter’s fiscal year ended on September 30th. A billion dollars of pure, clean, unfiltered profit. In a world where rainmakers were gods this much rain was a monsoon. Hell, this was God telling Noah to build an ark.
“Surely you can tighten your belt somewhere,” Rudy said.
The astonishment on Max’s face told Rudy he could not.
“You didn’t save anything for a rainy day?” Rudy asked, focusing on the document in his hands. The less eye contact the better for this part of the talk.
“I put all four of my sons through college,” Max said. “They come first. Not a one of them had a student loan. They all graduated without a penny of debt.”
It was impressive. Rudy’s own father neither helped him nor seemed aware of the need. Rudy spent his spare time in college waiting tables for spending money and graduated with ninety thousand dollars in loans hanging over him. When Rudy left for school each August, Rudolph Hardwick Sr. stopped him at the door and handed him a twenty-dollar bill, as if he was going to the movies or picking up milk and bread at the store. When Rudy got home each May his father seemed surprised at his arrival. Rudy often wondered what his father thought the May he graduated and didn’t come home. Or if he’d considered it at all.
From his upper periphery Rudy saw Max pull a photo from his wallet and hold it up.
“My boys,” Max said, beaming over the snapshot. “Course they’re all a lot older now.”
Rudy told himself not to look at the photograph. The older man hesitated and put it back into his wallet.
“We didn’t have two nickels to rub together,” Max continued. “Their mother did without things other women had. Never complained once. Anyway, we was never able to save. We paid off the house and have the social security coming. We can live good on that but we didn’t figure on having to worry about the insurance.”
As he spoke Max took the occasional pause to smile as if he had something to apologize for. “Walking on the beach in Pepsacola. She deserves that after all she sacrificed.”
“I understand,” Rudy said, as if he did.
“Like I said, I been here forty-six years. Never missed work once. Not even a sick day.”
Rudy couldn’t help finding the older man’s proud face. It bordered on the unbelievable.
“You’ve never taken a sick day?” he asked.
“In forty-six years? That’s incredible.”
“Wouldn’t a fella like me get to keep the insurance? What do they call it? Excused?”
“Excused. Ah. You mean grandfathered.”
Max brightened, as if by finding the word the solution had been discovered with it.
“Grandfathered,” Max repeated. “How do I get that?”
“Um,” Rudy murmured, pausing. He didn’t want to give false hope. “I’d need to take it up with Mr. Augustine.”
“Would you do that? It would mean the world to me. And my wife.”
Speaking of the devil, outside his office Rudy could see Manford Augustine, President and CEO. Waiting with him were Quentin Augustine, Executive VP, and Dexter Fitch, Chief Financial Officer. Fitch was looking right at them. With his pale skin, white hair and sunken eyes, he had the appearance of a specter. He huddled impatiently with the other two, intent on Rudy’s office, clearly waiting for Max to get the hell out. Augustine, Augustine and Fitch. The father, the son, and the ghost. The Trinity.
“We need to wrap it up, Max,” Rudy said.
“Can you tell me one thing? Why would the company do it? After all these years.”
“Let’s not jump off any bridges, right? It hasn’t happened yet.”
“But you get the sense it will.”
Rudy had more than a sense of it. He was counting on it. He wanted to say that the corporation was obligated to deliver shareholder value. That in the long run this was better for everyone, including Max and his wife, due to the likely improvement in Pax-Jupiter stock price which must surely be part of Max’s retirement portfolio, if only modest. But at this point, in the sunset of his career, it couldn’t possibly work out better for Max. They both knew it.
Rudy stole a glance at the Trinity. He needed to get the old guy out of here.
“I can’t promise anything,” he said. “But I’ll talk to Mr. Augustine.”
Max stood. “That’s all a man can ask. How’s your dad?”
Rudy never mentioned his father in their brief encounters, but Max always asked it, as a father would. Max didn’t need to know that in just over five hours, at precisely nine seconds past 4:23 p.m., Rudy would be standing with Rudolph Hardwick Sr. on a lonely stretch of beach on Sanibel Island, Florida. Once business with his father was concluded Rudy would make the quick hop to Key West for a well-deserved break.
“He’s fine,” Rudy said.
“Call him. I can’t tell you what it means when my sons call.”
“Max, I have a meeting and a plane to catch.” The older man moved obediently out the door leaving Rudy to feel quite sure he’d never see him again.