On Company Time ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
Sterling Burgess drove a delivery truck for the Handy Dandy Laundry. He was thirty-seven years old, a short man—barely five feet, three inches tall—and had to sit on a built-up seat to see over the steering wheel of the truck he drove. Most of the employees at Handy Dandy were women and, to these women, Sterling was an object of ridicule. They made fun of him and called him shortstop and half-pint. Any time he walked into the part of the building where they worked, they nudged each other and stopped what they were doing and watched him with a kind of inexplicable fascination.
He had ways of getting back at them, though. For every shortstop and half-pint they threw his way, he countered with swine and witch. And when they failed to see he was in the room, he liked to sneak up on them from behind, get down low and make sudden pig snorts or wolf howls, causing them to jump and scream. This was more effective than name-calling because they knew it was a commentary on their appearance.
One day the boss, Mr. Hornblatt, called Sterling into the office. One of the women, Malvina St. Elmo, a former prostitute with a pockmarked face and a head full of springy curls, complained that Sterling touched her on a nether portion of her anatomy and whispered a dirty word in her ear.
“She’s full of shit,” Sterling said. “I’ve never laid a finger on any of those bitches. I’d be afraid of contamination.”
“We can’t have that kind of behavior here,” Mr. Hornblatt said, “or even the appearance of it.”
“I said I didn’t do it.”
“All right. I’ll take your word for it this time. Just watch yourself, that’s all.”
“Did you tell the old heifer who told the lie to watch herself?”
“Remember what I said, Sterling.”
He was hurt that anybody would tell such an outrageous lie. In the future, he would avoid going anywhere near Malvina St. Elmo and the rest of them. He wouldn’t give any of them a chance to tell more lies. He would find some way of getting back at Malvina, no matter how long it took. He was not one to forget a slight. He wouldn’t rest until he had evened the score.
There was one woman who wasn’t like the others. Her name was Irene Tarrant; she had been at the laundry only a few months. Like Sterling, she was small. Unlike the other women, her uniform, hair and hands always looked clean and tidy. She stuck to her work and rarely spoke unless spoken to. The other women hated her for her silence and aloofness. They believed she thought she was better than they were.
When he caught Irene’s eye, she smiled at him and didn’t sneer, so he came to believe there was a kind of connection between them. She seemed sad, though, and he wished he might talk to her when nobody else was around, get to know her better.
What was her life like away from the laundry? Was she happy in spite of her odious job? Did she have a husband? Children? Did she have a cheerful home where she baked cakes and fried chicken and made new curtains for the kitchen? Maybe she used to be a nun and had left after a few years when she decided the monastic life wasn’t for her. The possibilities were limitless.
And when the time came that he could talk to her without interference, he’d tell her to get away from the laundry before it was too late. She didn’t belong there. How long would it take her to become coarse, ugly and cruel, like the others? A year or two, maybe? How long before she told dirty jokes, cackled with laughter, had a cigarette dangling from her lip? How long before she didn’t bother to comb her hair or keep her clothes clean and sneaked nips of whiskey when she thought nobody was looking? He could easily see it happening. We can’t escape our environment.
At home, at the dinner table, Sterling said, “There’s a woman I’m interested in at the laundry.”
His mother’s dull gray eyes lifted from her plate. “I thought you didn’t like the women at the laundry.”
“I don’t. This one’s different.”
“Who is she?”
“I don’t know much about her. Her name is Irene.”
“I knew an Irene once. She was a shoplifter.”
“I don’t think this one’s a shoplifter.”
“Are you going to marry her?”
“Of course not. I don’t even know her. She might already be married.”
“Forget about her. She’s no good for you.”
He laughed. “How do you know?”
“Women will always mess up your life.”
Speaking about Irene, bringing it out into the open that way, strengthened his determination to ask her out, at least for a get-acquainted drink, and if she didn’t drink they’d have a cup of tea or a Coke. If she was married, she’d let him know soon enough. How might he convince her that it was just as a friend that he was asking her?
He continued seeing her every day at the laundry, but she rarely looked his way. She had not the slightest bit of interest in him, he knew, or in anything other than her work.
He continued to keep a watchful eye on Malvina—without her knowing, of course—for any misdeeds. When she did something she wasn’t supposed to do, he’d use it as a weapon against her. His fondest wish was to get her fired.
And then one Friday afternoon when the boss was away, he spotted her going out a little-used side door that opened onto an alleyway. If she only wanted some fresh air, it was nothing, but he was sure there was more to it than that.
The door didn’t close all the way. In the half-inch space between the door and its frame, he saw Malvina standing about thirty feet away with a tall, thin man with dark hair. The man leaned into Malvina and kissed her on the side of her face and she put her arms around his shoulders and laughed. After a minute or so they got into the back of a van parked against the brick wall opposite and closed the doors. Thirty minutes later she was back on the line as if nothing had happened.
Casually, when nobody was looking, Sterling went to the time clock and looked at Malvina’s time card to see if she had punched out when she went out into the alleyway to dilly-dally with her boyfriend in the back of a van. He already knew she hadn’t. The company called it time theft and it was grounds for immediate dismissal.
He couldn’t very well carry a tale to the boss of what he had seen. He needed more than just his own word. He needed some proof. He bought a small camera and learned how to use it and kept it in his locker with his lunch bag and his jacket.
In the middle of May, the boss was out of the office for a week. It was the perfect time for misdeeds. On Wednesday morning when Sterling was getting ready to make some deliveries, it was his good fortune to spot Malvina going out the side door again. He ran to his locker and got his camera.
It was the same man as before, but with a second man this time. Sterling pushed the door open a few inches without being seen and was able to get some clear shots of both men as they greeted Malvina in a way that left no doubt as to their intentions. Malvina cooed and giggled, going from one to the other, her delight altogether obvious.
The scene was repeated on Friday afternoon, but Sterling already had what he needed.
On Monday morning before the boss arrived, Sterling left an envelope on his desk marked Confidential. In it were enlargements of the pictures he had taken of the activities in the alleyway on Wednesday of the week before. On each picture he wrote in block letters the time and date the picture was taken and the words On Company Time.
By afternoon the company was abuzz with rumors. Malvina St. Elmo did something she shouldn’t have done and was in big trouble. Management was plenty worked up about it. What did Malvina do? Nobody knew for sure, but some of her closest chums had a good idea.
The result was that Malvina was escorted out of the building at the end of the day by the sleepy-eyed security guard. She screamed profanities every step of the way and threatened to take legal action for being fired for no good reason. It was the most gratifying sight Sterling had seen in all his years at Handy Dandy.
For a few days after Malvina’s departure, Sterling was treated with more respect than he was used to. The women didn’t call him names and laugh at him. Malvina had been their ring leader. With her gone, they didn’t know what to do so they did nothing.
While Sterling may have considered the score settled, someone else did not. Exactly two weeks after she was fired, Malvina returned to Handy Dandy. She knew exactly where Sterling would be. She found him and fired one shot into his abdomen and ran out the door.
Everybody heard the shot and went running to see what had happened. Sterling was lying on his back, screaming in pain, bleeding profusely. The women stood and gaped at him in fascination, nobody making a move to help him.
Only Irene stepped forward. “Somebody call an ambulance!” she screamed.
Mr. Hornblatt came out of his office and when he saw what had happened he was the one who called the ambulance and then the police.
“Did anybody see who did this?” he said in his thunderous rally-the-troops voice.
“Malvina,” Sterling gasped.
“Somebody get me some clean towels!” Irene said in a commanding voice that nobody knew she was capable of.
With towels folded to make a compress, she pressed with all her might against his abdomen to try to slow the bleeding until the ambulance arrived.
Time passed. A little or a lot of time, it didn’t matter.
He awoke in a high bed beside a gray wall. His mother was there, dressed in her Sunday best. She smiled at him and he thought he might be dreaming.
“You almost died,” she said with a little laugh.
He didn’t have anything to say, so he said nothing. He closed his eyes, thinking to return to wherever he had been for so long.
“I’ve spoken to Mr. Hornblatt from Handy Dandy three times on the phone,” his mother said. “He wanted me to tell you that everybody at the laundry sends their best wishes and that your job is waiting for you when you’re ready to come back.”
“I don’t know if…”
“You don’t have to think about it now, though.”
“Has anybody named Irene been to see me?” he asked.
“Irene? Oh, Mr. Hornblatt did mention a person named Irene.”
“What did he say about her?”
“He said she saved your life the day that awful woman shot you. She kept you from bleeding to death while you were waiting for the ambulance to get there.”
“She did that?”
“Yes, I tried to call her at the laundry to thank her for what she did, but they said she never came back after that day and they don’t know where she went.”
“Yes, but I wouldn’t worry. Did you see the lovely flowers they sent you?”
He looked in the direction of his feet but saw no flowers. He closed his eyes again then to make his mother stop talking. He knew when she left from the opening and closing of the door.
He slept and woke and slept again. Once when he woke, a small, dark-haired woman was standing where his mother had been earlier. He didn’t know how long she had been there and he wasn’t sure if he had ever seen her before. She smiled a rare smile and put her small white hand on his.
“I knew you’d come,” he said.
Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp