|THE PRODIGAL SON
Archie R. Whitehill
I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee."
It was 8:30 A.M. and Wes Carter had planned to be at work by 9:00, a difficult feat with his office a 35-minute drive under the best conditions. Wes was just walking toward the double, heavy oak door of his home, briefcase in hand, when he heard the doorbell, an added stress he didn't need. Maybe that's why it rang; it rang again, insistently this time with a triple ring mere seconds apart.
"All right, I'm coming," his face hardened, stress showing in the tightening of his neck muscles. "Hold your horses."
The bell rang again as Wes opened the door, "Package for Mr. Wes Carter, Sir. Please sign here." The UPS man, sharp-looking, efficient sounding, and professionally pleasant, was in direct contrast to the way Wes felt and looked. Wes signed, mumbled thanks, grabbed the package with his free hand and headed for his car.
"Damn it!" Wes was fuming to himself. "This is the third time this month I'll be late." If he hadn't just taken over the company, it wouldn't be so bad. It was so important to show the rank and file that he was in charge and that he would expect more from them than his father had.
Dear old dad. He'd fought the take-over, but in the short battle through the courts, Wes' attorney had proven to be the better of the two lawyers. Dear old dad, president of the company one day and in an institution the next. That psychiatrist had cost Wes a fortune, but his testimony was worth it. Dear old dad. He was one of those men who couldn't survive without the struggle of competition, the daily give and take of bullshit, the stress of being on the brink of financial destruction with every major decision.
All the excitement and constant activity the elder Carter had cherished was taken away from him when he was locked away, or as Wes had said, "Properly cared for."
Two weeks after the competency hearing, Carter, the elder, was found dead in his septic, comfortably furnished, art "de J.C. Penney" room at the nursing home. "Hanged himself by the neck, damn!" Wes still found it hard to believe that such a pillar of strength would give in to defeat so easily.
Wes hardly ever noticed the familiar landmarks on his way to work. The on-ramp signs. The "Vote Democratic" billboard that still had Johnson's picture on it, and the other homes which, on a Carter-given tour for a client, would be pointed out as belonging to the mayor, two senators, and a long forgotten movie director. But, this morning, memories of his dad, the company take-over, and the suicide led to his complete surprise when he realized that he was pulling into his reserved parking spot. It used to be his dad's.
It was 8:58 by the clock on his dashboard. Not bad time, he thought, not bad at all. He shook off the feelings caused by the bitter-dim memories. Why this morning? It had been just under a year since his dad was buried. They'd never been close, although they were much alike when it came to business philosophy.
Jane Hargensen, Wes' secretary since he started working in the family business, was on station and ready to start the day.
"Morning Jane. When are we going out to dinner?" It was a standing joke, one of those jokes that had been going on for so long that any serious invitation would be taken for anything more than a joke. Wes paused, considered the invitation, then walked by her desk, picking up his mail as he walked. The faint smell of something familiar was coming to his consciousness.
"Good morning, Mr. Carter." Her smile was real. When would he ask her without joking?
"Hold my calls, Jane, and get me the Bulford contract. He and I will be at loggerheads in less than an hour. The cheap bastard wants our services at cost. Oh, here are my keys. Have someone bring me that package from the front seat of my car."
The office had a calming effect on Wes. He loved the decisions, the negotiations, the finagling. The elder Carter had taught him well.
An office go-fer knocked and entered. "Sir, here's your package. Jane said she'd bring the Bulford contract in just a minute."
Wes nodded. He barely glanced at the kid. He paused. He hadn't seen that office boy in over a year, not since. . . . Naw. Couldn't be. They all looked alike: white shirts, thin ties, loud trousers, acne; they come and they go.
The go-fer was forgotten. The return address on the package jumped at Wes. It burned through his eyes to etch itself on his brain, bringing a flood of memories, suppressed guilt and a queazy, sick feeling in his stomach. The address read: Administrative Office, State Home for the Aged, 2357 Montrow Boulevard.
What could it be? He had picked up all dad's personal items. He thought he had. Dad didn't have that much; this must be a mistake.
He ripped off the paper and tore open the flimsy, well-worn, Campbell's Soup box. The battered, old-fashioned, cowhide briefcase within brought back another flood of bittersweet memories.
That case was the first expensive gift he had given his dad. It was during Wes' freshman year in high school, can you believe it, 30 years ago. He had spent $20 on it, a bargain by today's standards. Real leather. He remembered the smell. The smooth feel of new leather. The rough leather interior. The shiny brass latch. He hadn't seen the briefcase in years. He couldn't remember the last time his dad had used it. Surely he would have noticed it when he took dad to the home just barely a year ago.
He felt it again. Quality leather seems to improve and gain character with age. He opened it and noticed there was still a robust smell of natural leather, not like the plastic scent of today's man-made leather substitutes.
"Mr. Carter?" Wes was jolted back to his present by the sharp, efficient-sounding voice over the intercom. "I can't find the Bulford contract. Are you sure you don't have it on your desk? You were looking at it Friday afternoon."
"Damn it!" Wes remembered taking it home to review over the weekend. He also remembered it being on his night stand, under his reading glasses, forgotten in this morning's rush to get out of the house. The Bulford meeting was in half an hour and the contract was at home. Great. Just great. "Jane, get Mr. Bulford's office. See if he's left and tell him I've had to reschedule his meeting for this afternoon. Make it about 2:30."
His dad's briefcase was still on his desk, opened just as he'd left it not two minutes ago. Only it was no longer empty. He reached for the stack of papers peeking out of the side pocket. God, they felt cold! There was a scent, faint but still there, of Hai Karate, his dad's favorite aftershave. Wes hated it. How had he missed the spicy-sweet odor earlier?
"What's going on here?" Wes stared at the papers in his hand. It was the Bulford contract, the one he'd left, or thought he'd left, on his night stand at home. It couldn't be. He'd just opened the box right here in his office. Besides, the briefcase was empty just a few minutes ago.
Back to reality. "Jane," he snapped, "Cancel that call to Bulford."
The next two days were hectic. Bulford had agreed to the contract in its entirety, signed it with no fuss, no arguments. He would have done so with dad, his old buddy from the "good old days," on a handshake, no papers to sign, but he hated Wes for some reason. Wes thought Bulford must have been sick, but there was no time to waste. Move fast while Bulford's still under the weather.
Wes started using the old briefcase. It felt comfortable. The grip felt worn to his hand, as if he had always carried it. By Thursday, it was as if he had bought it for himself 30 years ago and had carried it every day since then.
When Friday afternoon rolled around, Wes was ready for a good stiff drink. He wished he had a bottle in his desk. His Dad kept one there. That's why Wes didn't. "Could sure use a Glen Fiddich on the rocks. Want the damn thing so bad I can smell it." He could. Where was the smell coming from? Then he saw the distinctive triangular, green bottle of his favorite scotch, standing in the briefcase next to his chair. "Where the hell did that come from?"
The bottle was open and thee was a rocks glass, half full of ice, next to it. Wes swore to himself that the briefcase was empty since this morning when he'd arrived at the office and emptied it himself. There was that unmistakable odor of Hai Karate, too, much stronger than the mellow, inviting scent of the scotch whiskey.
The drive home that night was a strange one. Thoughts of Wes' Dad kept coming through. Wes even lit his cigarette with a match instead of with the electric lighter in the dash like he always did. Dad never used the dash lighter. He used matches. Well, the briefcase was not going to get to him. It was all in his head. Wes was happy he had left the old briefcase at his office.
"All I need is a quiet, relaxing week-end. Wich I'd invited Jane up. We could have had some fun together, finally get to know each other better." Wes glanced at himself in the mirror as he talked. "You're not bad for 44. Single, well, in a month or so anyway, intelligent, and wealthy. What more would a woman want? These modern women want fun and money with no strings. Maybe I'll give Jane a call tomorrow morning. We'll make it a long week-end. After all, I am the boss."
The sun was just sinking, seemingly into the lake behind Wes' house, when he got home. Black, billowing clouds were coming in from the west; maybe he would invite Jane up for another week-end when the weather was better. Sure, let this strange feeling about Dad fall to the side first. He'd shake it off this week-end, go to work Monday, and throw the damn briefcase into the dumpster. He didn't need reminders.
Wes had just finished his dinner, Salisbury steak a la Swanson, when the doorbell rang.
"Jane, what a surprise, I was just thinking of you just a while ago on my drive home. Come in, come in! Can I get you anything?"
Well, Mr. Carter, I . . ."
"Wes, please call me Wes."
"Okay. Wes. Mr. . . . Wes, I noticed you left the office without your briefcase, and since I had no firm plans for the . . . ."
"Your briefcase, I brought your briefcase. I thought it might be . . ."
"This is unbelievable. Sit down, please. I need to talk to you. I was thinking of inviting you up for the week-end." Wes immediately regretted saying those words.
Jane blushed, "I didn't mean to seem so, so forward, Mr. . . . uh, Wes. The briefcase seemed to be important. And," she smiled coyly, "I have been wanting to visit.
Wes missed Jane's reaction. "No, no, not at all, not at all. The briefcase. It's done it again!" He stalked the bar, reaching for a yet unmade drink.
"The briefcase, it's done it again. Ever since I got it Monday it's been . . ." a long pause and a cough, "helping me, getting me things I want."
"I don't understand," Jane was beginning to lose her smile, a bit of fear crept into her voice.
"Just listen . . . ," another cough, "helping me, getting things I want, things I need. Things I didn't have."
"I still don't understand." Jane was half way between concern and fear, not knowing, not sure she wanted to know.
"Just listen! The contract, the Bulford contract. I know I left it home; I found it in the briefcase. The scotch, earlier today. No sense or logic behind that one. Now you show up, with the briefcase! I just mention or wish that I want something and the briefcase delivers it. It anticipates my needs somehow. What is happening? Do you smell it?
Jane stood up and started toward the door. Without pausing, but turning her head a bit toward Wes, "Smell what, sir?"
"Hai Karate. Do you smell it?"
"I've really got to go now, Mr. Carter. It's beginning to rain and I don't like driving at night. I've got to go."
"Please, Jane, I need to talk to someone, . . . to you . . ., about what has been happening to me." Wes' voice trembled. He held on to the back of the chair with one hand while reaching for Jane with the other. His stomach muscles felt as if they had just been hit by a pro boxer.
Jane had never seen him on the verge of losing control. He was always so sure of himself at work. His apparent strength was one thing that had drawn her attention to him. What was happening to him?
She slowed, turned and stopped. "All right Wes, take it easy. Get a hold of yourself. What has been going on? What is it with the briefcase?"
Wes sat down. He took a deep breath and slowly let it out. A calmness, almost resignation, came over him as he started to talk, more in control of himself again.
"This briefcase has been helping me for the past week. It can't be my imagination. The contract I left home, it was in my briefcase. I wanted the deal with Bulford to go through and it did. Bull didn't get his nickname for nothing, yet, Monday, he was like a lamb waiting for me to fleece him. Another time I wanted a shot of scotch so bad, a whole bottle of my favorite label was in the briefcase, complete with the rocks in a glass. I saw Johnny, an office boy I fired when Dad . . . uh . . ., left the company. I'm lighting cigarettes with matches!" He realized the insanity of that statement, but continued. "And, finally, tonight, I was wanting to see you, to ask you to spend the week-end here with me. A silly, unwarranted fantasy! What happens? The briefcase delivers you right to my door. My own damn front door!"
Jane was again embarrassed by the references to her, but regained her composure, "Don't you have that turned backwards? I brought you the briefcase."
"No! Don't you see? You are here because of it, because I wanted you to be here. This is my Dad's way of getting even."
"Getting even? Come on, Wes. You're stretching."
"Long story. I'm not sure I want to tell you. I just want to find out why this is happening. I should be happy, thrilled, that it's providing what I want most at any particular moment. But I'm scared. You better go, Jane. We'll get together some other time. See you Monday morning." He got up and walked her to the door. He ignored her puzzled look. He needed her to go.
Jane's departure was a relief. Wes wanted to be alone. "Damn!" I wish I could make up for what I did to yo, Dad. I didn't want you to kill yourself! Why were you so weak when I was, too?"
Wes smelled the Hai Karate again. He could almost hear his Dad calling, "Come on Wes, let's go. You've got to learn the business one of these days."
Wes looked over toward the door where Jane had left the briefcase. "That's funny. I didn't notice it was open. I wonder what it's got for me now."
"Coming, Dad." Wes found himself next to the briefcase without realizing how he got there. He looked into the briefcase and saw a length of rope, one end tied into a noose. God, was it cold.