Whoever Takes the Next Step First

Face covered, James Franklin, Vice-president of Marketing, lies on an ambulance gurney. As Hyatt waits to speak with the secretary, he watches the medics wheel the body out then studies the office -- the floor to ceiling windows, the gleaming mahogany desk, the woman's photograph, the bottle of vodka three quarters empty, the empty vial of blood pressure medicine lying on its side. The secretary is standing to make the calls, avoiding the leather chair.

She tells him, after she cradles the phone, that, yes, the vial was full. The concierge downstairs had brought it from the pharmacy that morning.

She doesn't know why he did it. She tells Hyatt, "You should have seen him yesterday." Yesterday, Franklin was punching his friend, Monty, in the shoulder. Monty had taken the next step first, a new promotion, and he'd dropped by to boast.

"Another drink, man," Monty had said, "you have to buy me another drink." Then, they went out to celebrate.

She hadn't been in Mr. Franklin's office long -- only three years, but, no, he didn't seem like the type to her. He was very stable; the marketing division was successful. No, no, affair; that's his wife's picture on the desk. If he was having problems at home, he didn't confide in her. Maybe Hyatt should talk to Monty.

She writes out the address.

- - -

The mahogany desk in Monty Sewell's office is larger than Hyatt can imagine anyone ever needing. Monty's elbows rest on it. He entwines his fingers and then pulls his hands apart three times. "I can't believe it. Just can't believe it. We were laughing so hard last night over his having to pay off the bet. Whoever takes the next step first, loser buys."

"The next step?"

"It's a running bet we made, in elementary school, in summer camp. We were learning to swim and bet each other a root beer on who'd lap the pool first. We bet on who'd have the first date, the first sex, the first live-in, the first anything. We bet on every promotion."

"So, you were promoted."

"Chief Financial Officer. Me. Jim would have made it. We both thought Jim would be first, that his guy would get a better offer and move. Jim kept giving him little nudges, telling him about openings, telling other people about him. But, his guy stayed, and my guy retired." Monty stares into the space of his office. "Why didn't I know? I should have known.... You'll need to know why, won't you, for your reports? I don't know why, but I do know paperwork."

Monty gets up and comes around the desk, gestures across the office toward an area along the wall arranged for small meetings. Hyatt follows him. Above a round table and four chairs hang photos and awards. Hyatt wonders if building maintenance extends to office d├ęcor. Someone had to have worked overnight to put all Monty's things in place.

"Here's Jim and I celebrating our vice-presidencies. That was nearly a tie, but the party was at his house. Those are our wives, Sarah and Glenni. Sarah's mine." Monty touches the picture then straightens it, though it is perfectly aligned. "You'll have to talk to Glenni, won't you?... Let me go with you."

- - -

On either side of the street, two story mansions loom over postage stamp lots. There are no yards, only grass borders around the houses and the decks with hot tubs. A man, 20s, tall and runner slim, totally unlike the deceased, opens the door of a Tudor. His mouth forms an "m", that changes to a "w" when he sees Hyatt. Monty tells him, "He needs to speak to your mother, Dean."

"She's lying down."

"It's paperwork, a formality," Hyatt says. "Sorry, but..."

Dean leads Monty and Hyatt to the great room then goes upstairs to get his mother. Once Dean crosses the overhanging loft above them, Monty wanders to a wall of built in shelves where books mingle with mementos and photos. One, a wedding portrait, he holds out to Hyatt -- Glenni and the deceased, the bride and groom; Sarah and Monty, best man and matron of honor.

"We introduced them, Sarah and I, six years ago. It was our wedding anniversary, our fifteenth. We'd planned a second honeymoon, a South Pacific cruise. But Jim, two years divorced and he finally had a fling. He thought it was the second time around, but he was at her apartment and found one of those books about finding rich husbands. Glenni had been a widow for three years, then. She'd been looking, but not finding. Had to do something, Sarah and I. We thought we'd help them find what we found. Next month would have been their fifth, only their fifth."

"Then Dean's not..."

"Huh, oh, no, he's from Sarah's first marriage. He was fourteen back then. That was a rough time, for all three."

"What about Jim's first marriage?"

"Dena? He met her in college, followed her like the tail of a kite. No kids, she said, the world was polluted, overpopulated, saturated in drugs and violence. He had the V for her. I argued with him, asked him what if? Dena was it, he said. He became like an uncle to Sarah's and mine. He'd come over without Dena and take them places, to give Sarah and I time alone, he said. Sarah and I played along. At first, he tried to get Dena to come, but she wouldn't. He made excuses for her, said she was too high strung. But after that . . . she took him for one H of a settlement."

Hyatt hears carpet-cushioned footsteps cross the loft above and come down the steps. Monty puts the photo back but is slow to look away.

Glenni has taken some time, used make-up for cover; put on a silk blouse, and, maybe, a raw silk skirt; but her eyes still show red. She crosses the room to the cluster of love seats, tables, and chairs pulled up in front of the cast iron stove in the corner. She sits next to the chair with the tissue box. Her voice is husky, worn out.

"Dean says you needed to know about Jim? About why?" She waves away Hyatt's words when he starts to speak.

"It's your job. It's all right. But all I've been doing is asking myself why, and I don't know."

She sat looking at the stove.

"We'd been talking about our anniversary. It's next month. We were making plans. Jim said, when we got married, that he wished he could take me to Paris, because that was where Dena had wanted to go, but all we could afford was a bed and breakfast in New England to see the leaves change. He wanted this room decorated to commemorate that, to commemorate how we started. He said we'd go back this year and do and see everything we'd done before. Then, yesterday, he called me, told me about Monty's promotion. I thought the rest of the day about how to give him a first."

She reaches for a photo album on the lower shelf of the table beside her but then just sits staring into the space between her and the stove. Her fingers curl over the top edge of the album; her left thumb taps an uneven rhythm on the cover.

"Last night, after he came home, I said Sarah and Monty haven't been to Paris. Dena hasn't either. Let's go to Paris. He asked me if I'd really rather do that than go back to New England, and I said it would be something different. He wondered, if he could get tickets, would I like to see one of the couture shows. He said Dena would have wanted to do that, but I told him that if there were tickets and not invitations, I imagined they were gone. He said that if I ever got to a couture show, at least I'd have better taste than Dena."

As she talks, she looks down and flips through a handful of album pages at a turn, as if she knows the order of the pictures well, knows exactly where to find the one she wants.

"After we ate, he came in here. I cleaned up in the kitchen, and when I came in, I found him with the photo album in his lap, just staring at this one picture." She taps the picture with a fingernail. "The one of you and him at camp, Monty, where he's handing you the root beer, the first time he bought you a drink.

"Then, this morning, before he left for work, he told me that when I talked to you today that I should tell you that you were going to have to buy him one."

About the author:

Elizabeth Ann Roy has served as a staff writer for The Historian, a regional magazine which focuses on the history of Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Michigan. Her short story "One Needed at Hoggy's Ribs" appears in the January, 2003 issue of the British short story magazine Peninsular.