If Mr. Shinliver Dies ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
I arrived late to work and as soon as I walked into the office I heard laughter and loud voices. I knew something unusual had happened. Ramona Sugarman, the receptionist, sat at her desk filing her fingernails.
“What’s going on, Ramona?” I asked.
“Mr. Shinliver had a heart attack,” she said casually.
“Oh, my gosh! Is he all right?”
She shrugged her shoulders and trained her cross-eyed gaze on her little finger. “How should I know?”
As I proceeded to my cubicle, all the way in the back by the window, a football whizzed by my head, followed by a burst of laughter.
“Uh-oh,” Chick Chapwick said. “Tremaine is here. Do you think he’s going to tell on us?”
Irvine Beasley caught the ball, gripped it with both hands and pretended to throw it right at my face. “No, Tremaine won’t tell,” he said. “Not if he knows what’s good for him.”
“I’m not seeing this,” I said.
“That’s the spirit!” Chick Chapwick said.
I entered my cubicle and set my briefcase on the desk. Felice Belladonna poked her head up over the partition that separated my cubicle from hers. She held a lighted cigarette in the corner of her mouth like a death row convict.
“I didn’t know you smoked, Felice,” I said.
“I don’t. Until now.”
“Haven’t you heard the good news?”
“No, I haven’t heard any good news this morning.”
“You know that Mr. Shinliver had to go to Fairfield on business this week and took with Miss Wagstaff with him, don’t you?”
“Who doesn’t know?”
“Well, Mr. Shinliver had a heart attack. Can you believe it?”
“Oh, my goodness!” I said. “Is he all right?”
“They say he was in Miss Wagstaff’s room when it happened. You can only imagine what they were doing.”
“I’d rather not.”
“He’s on one of those machines that does his breathing for him.”
“It’s the best thing that’s happened around here in a long time.”
“Depends on how you look at it,” I said.
“He’ll be out at least for a couple of weeks. That is, if he doesn’t die. If that happens, he’ll never be back! Hurray!”
“You’re terrible, Felice!
“If the old buzzard dies, you should become the boss.”
“Not me,” I said, yawning. “I don’t want to be the boss.”
“If you want to go back home and go back to bed, I’ll cover for you.”
“No thanks, Felice. Now that I’m here, I’ll stay.”
Nobody was doing any work. Everybody was excited, talking and laughing but mostly speculating about how bad Mr. Shinliver’s condition was and, if he should happen to die, who would take his place.
I heard Ramona Sugarman scream, following by a crash. I figured the football had hit one of the ornamental planters in the reception area and knocked it over.
Somebody went for donuts and then everybody converged on the break room for a donut party. I waited a few minutes and then I went in for my morning cup of tea.
“Did you hear the good news?” Ricky Spears asked me. He was eating an iced jelly donut, jelly dripping down his chin.
“Yes, I heard, Ricky.”
“If Mr. Shinliver dies, you should be the new boss.”
“I don’t want to be the boss, Ricky. Maybe it’ll be you.”
“Not me,” he laughed. “I miss too much work.”
While I heated the water for my tea, I stood and looked over the tray of donuts. I was happy to see that there was still one left that was oozing red jelly out the side like a glorious wound. As I picked the donut up and bit into it, somebody clapped me on the shoulder from behind.
“Well, well, well!” a booming voice said. “Look who bothered to show up for work today!”
“I’m always here, Melville,” I said as I turned around and tried to smile. “I never miss work.”
It was Melville Herman, of course. Mr. Big. The blowhard. The blatherskite. The man who managed to make himself offensive to everybody in the world, including a string of ex-wives.
“Did you hear the good news?”
“About Mr. Shinliver, you mean?”
“If the old boy buys the farm, guess who your new boss will be?”
“I wouldn’t even venture a guess,” I said. I took a step away from him so I wouldn’t have him breathing in my face.
“It’ll be me, you fool!” he said. “Who else?”
“What makes you think so?”
“It’s all but in the bag. Who’s the person with any competence around here? Who keeps this place afloat?”
“I don’t know. Miss Wagstaff?”
“Wagstaff’s just a puppet! And she’s a lesbian, besides.”
“Really? I didn’t know that. I heard that she and Mr. Shinliver were an item.”
He laughed his hyena-like laugh. “You are so funny!” he said. “Nobody talks like that anymore!”
“I’m going to take some measurements in Mr. Shinliver’s office and see how my furniture is going to fit in there. I think I’m going to want some new curtains, too. The old ones smell like old man Shinliver.”
After Melville left, I sat down at one of the little round tables in the break room and looked out the window. I envied the birds flying across the sky because they were free and didn’t have to work in an office.
In a few seconds, Flora Upjohn was upon me like a charging rhino. Any time I ever found myself near her, I always imagined she was going to crush me. She weighed three hundred and fifty pounds and had an elaborate Louie the Fourteenth hairdo.
“Well, look who’s here!” she said, smacking her hand down on the table, causing me to jump.
“Leave me alone,” I said.
“Heard about Shinliver?”
“Everybody has heard, Flora.”
“Nobody is doing any work.”
“Including me,” I said. “And you.”
“So, what do you think is going to happen with Shinliver?”
“I don’t know, Flora. I left my crystal ball at home this morning.”
“I heard that if Mr. Shinliver dies, you’re going to get a big promotion. I’ll bet you’ve already been in his office taking measurements, haven’t you?”
“That’s Melville Herman,” I said. “He’s picking out new drapes.”
“That clown? He’ll never be boss. Nobody likes him.”
“Nobody likes Mr. Shinliver either, but that hasn’t kept him from being the boss.”
“You’d make a good boss. Everybody looks up to you.”
“No, they don’t. They hate me because I hate them.”
“Hah-hah-hah!” she said. “You were always so funny!”
“I can’t be the new boss because I’m leaving this place.”
“What? Have you found a better job?”
“I didn’t say that. I said. I. Am. Leaving. This. Place.”
“Well, you don’t have to be so smart-ass about it.”
“I’m not being smart-ass. I just don’t like having people asking me questions.”
After lunch we were in full party mode. Somebody brought in a radio and put it next to the coffee maker and tuned it to a dance station. One person began dancing and then two and then just about everybody in the office. Men danced with other men and women danced with woman. I think there is nothing more disquieting than seeing mousey accountants dressed all in black and white—one of them wearing red socks—shaking all over, tilting their heads back and closing their eyes in ecstasy.
“They’ve all gone crazy,” I said.
“Their oppressor is gone,” Flora said. “They’re experiencing a heady moment of freedom.”
“It won’t last. Mr. Shinliver will be back or somebody even worse, like Captain Queeg.”
A few minutes after three o’clock, I received a call. When I picked up the phone, it was Bertha Wagstaff on the line, Mr. Shinliver’s right-hand man.
“Is this Tremaine?” she said in her foghorn voice.
“Yes, ma’am! What can I do for you?”
“Bertha Wagstaff here.”
“Yes, Miss Wagstaff!”
“I have some news about Mr. Shinliver.”
“Are you sure you don’t want to speak to Melville Herman?”
“No, you’re the one,” she said.
“The one what?”
“Everybody looks up to you. Everybody likes you.”
“No they don’t!” I said defensively.
She imparted her news and then at the end of the conversation instructed me that I was to call everybody into the big conference room and tell them what she had told me.
It took about ten minutes to round everybody up and when I had them all in the conference room, about fifty in number, they thought it was just part of the ongoing party.
I didn’t like euphemisms or stringing people along for dramatic effect, so, after I got everybody quieted down, I told them straight out: “Mr. Shinliver died at eight minutes past noon today.”
There was a stunned silence. The room became so quiet I could hear the blood coursing through my veins. The loud mouths like Melville Herman were quiet for a change. After they had had a couple of minutes to absorb the news, I told them the rest.
“The company ceases to exist as of today.”
“Mr. Shinliver was the company,” I said. “With no Mr. Shinliver, there’ll be no company. It’s the way he wanted it.”
“Where does that leave us?” somebody asked.
“Unemployed,” I said.
“I’m sorry to be the one to deliver this news, but somebody had to do it.”
There were no goodbyes for me. I got away as quickly as I could and, as I left Shinliver and Company for the last time, I felt light with happiness and relief. I stopped at a bakery and bought myself a strawberry pie. I gave a five-dollar bill to an old fellow who asked me for change. All at once I loved the world and everybody in it.
Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp