Hank Argaed was dressed in a two-piece black suit with navy blue pin stripes running vertically toward the ground. A matching blue handkerchief, folded like a pyramid, poked out of his left breast pocket. His eyes didn’t match the attire, as they were rimmed red, almost pink. He stepped up to the podium without looking out at the crowd of people seated in the pews in front of him, cleared his throat, and adjusted the black tie around his neck before ruffling a few sheets of paper in front of him. His voice started strong, but given the circumstances, it was no surprise when he choked up towards the end of the second minute.
“Bud Panew was a man I will never forget,” he started. “I’ll always remember giving him his first job at Provincial avenue 20 years ago, when he was a fresh college graduate and couldn’t tie a half Windsor knot to save his life. By the end of the interview, I decided he was a man destined to do great things for our company, even after Bud finished the interview a bit too comfortably by telling me his infamous lesbian, penguin joke, of which I am pretty sure we all could quote right this instant. Despite the crass humor, and trying my hardest not to laugh at it, I never once doubted the decision I made 20 years ago in hiring Bud. He was as valuable as I believed he would be, and Provinicial Ave will never be the same without him. An amazing man. A company man.
“Bud was born in nineteen…” It was at this point in his eulogy, I stopped listening. I was seated, by myself, in the back row of pews with my head bowed, staring at the in memoriam card I had picked up when I entered the church where his funeral was being held. The card was a picture of Bud in his Provincial Ave polo T-shirt, smiling. He was standing in front of the desk chair in his office with wind blown hair from his perpetual smoking breaks and a coffee stained mug with the Provincial Ave lighthouse logo held in his left hand. The desk behind him was littered with scattered stacks of papers and manilla envelopes that Bud used to swear were organized. Only he knew how. Coffee ringlets dotted half the papers and any bare spaces of his desk. The whole chaos was outlined by the black, metal frame doorway of his office and the door that he always kept open. My stomach turned at the thought. I stood up quickly and quietly, heading for the exit of the church, trying to leave unnoticed. The in memoriam card was left at my empty pew.
I walked out into the Saturday afternoon sunlight and lit a cigarette to calm my churning guts. After a few minutes had passed and my breathing calmed down, I turned and stared at the church where Bud’s casket would soon be emerging. I wondered if he would have been happy that his funeral hadn’t interrupted a day of work and spit on the ground after thinking it. I didn’t want to be here, I realized before turning to face an open field across the street. It was lined with maple and pine trees, the grass growing a bit taller than needed in a shaggy, unkempt flourish of flora. I was unfamiliar with the area, having caught a cab to make it to the church for the service. The field had surprised me, as the rest of the street was still urban in its trappings. A Store 2-4 was no more than ten feet away from the last of the maples on the west corner. The east side was lined by a row of apartment buildings peaking above the small pines. I wondered if they were addressed to separate streets.
I didn’t notice the tugging on my left sleeve at first, but a quiet clearing of the throat brought me out of my reverie. I wondered how long I had been staring across the street. I turned to see a small girl no more than 8 staring up at me. She looked familiar, but I wasn’t sure why.
“Excuse me,” she said.
The cigarette in my hand suddenly felt a hundred pounds, so, I dropped it to the ground and stomped it out on the concrete.
“Hi,” I said. “Who are you?”
“I’m Betty,” the girl said. She had long dark hair that fell to mid back with matching eyes and complexion. Her dress was sheer black and looked too somber for someone so young. The thought was intensified by the black ribbon in her hair.
“I’m James,” I said. “Nice to meet you.”
“Nice to meet you too.”
She smiled, but it didn’t have any real joy in it. It reminded me of a handshake you exchange with someone you’re meeting for the first time, formal, if not forced. I returned the smile.
“Mr. Argaed said it was you,” Betty said.
“It was me?” I asked. “Me what?”
Then as Betty began to speak, I understood why she looked familiar. She was Betty Panew, Bud’s only daughter. I had only seen pictures of her up to the age of 5, when Bud and his wife had divorced, and Betty had gone to live with her mother. Bud used to joke that his child support payments were always on time, even though he never was.
“Work never lets me go,” he would say to me when I ran into him outside having a smoke. He would laugh at the statement as if it was a joke. I had never found it funny.
“Mr. Argaed said you found him,” Betty said.
I didn’t know what to say, so I simply nodded. I was the one who found him on Saturday evening, dead at his desk. I had been drinking with some friends downtown and only stopped by the office to take a piss before catching a train home. I didn’t make it to the bathroom.
Bud’s body was slumped forward in the chair he had been given when awarded the Provincial Ave M.V.P., motivated vice president. The translucent skin of his forehead rested on the letters of the ergonomic keyboard he had been given for his third service award. Both of Bud’s hands clutched the front of his shirt, above the Provincial Ave logo sewn into the left breast of the polo shirt. His face was frozen in a look of confusion and fear, and I refused to look at it a second time, once I saw it for the first. If it hadn’t been for the constant beeping of the computer unable to comprehend what his cold forehead was trying to type, I would have walked right by his open office door. It would’ve been Monday morning before anyone found him.
When he didn’t respond to me shaking his stiff shoulder, I pissed my pants. I called an ambulance from his office phone, not because I thought they could do anything for him, but because I had no idea who else to call to remove a dead body. When the EMT’s arrived, I was in the bathroom wearing only my urine soaked boxers as I washed the front of my jeans. It took a while, as I had trouble controlling my shaking hands.
“Did Daddy look peaceful?” Betty asked.
I nodded then pulled my pack of American Spirit cigarettes out. I lit a fresh one and tried to think of something to say to her.
“You’re father looked like he was resting,” I lied. “I’d never seen him look so calm in all the years we worked together.”
The police had arrived shortly after the ambulance. They took a statement from me, after I put on my sopping wet jeans. I threw the piss soaked boxers in the trash. Once I was done explaining how I had found him, they rolled the gurney with his body past me. A thin white sheet covered him, but rigor mortis had set in while he was sitting in his chair, leaving his final exit from Provincial Ave a morbid comedy. They had placed him on the gurney with his knees and forehead pressed against the bedding, like a cleric prostrating himself before his god. He was wheeled out like a snow-covered mountain or maybe just a rounded lump.
“Did he look happy?” Betty asked.
I took a deep drag of my cigarette and nodded, more to myself.
“No,” I said. “He died at his desk, by himself.”
“Oh,” Betty said. She looked at the ground and kicked a small rock on the pavement. It skipped halfway across the street towards the field.
I looked past her to the church. The front doors stood open and a group of co-workers clustered around them, standing on various steps. Occasionally someone said something to another, but I was too far away to hear. Mr. Argaed stood on the top most step, next to the ex-Mrs. Panew. She was comforting him as he dabbed the blue handkerchief to his eyes.
I began to talk again, but I didn’t really expect Betty to care about what I said.
“Your Daddy was real nice guy when he had time to be. I used to wonder why he drove himself so hard. He was devoted to his work. Now he’s gone and it’ll go on without him. There’s just you now, and I think Bud would have liked to spend more time with you. It’s just that he was…” I trailed off, as I didn’t know what to say. I took another drag of smoke.
“It’s just that he was a company man,” Betty said. I looked down at her, but she was staring across the street at the field. I turned to face the same direction. A breeze drove down the street and rustled the limbs of the trees and the black bow in Betty’s hair. I took a final drag on my smoke before I dropped it on the ground next to the other crushed butt. The breeze caught the discarded cigarette and skittered it down the sidewalk towards the street.
“Yeah,” I said. “He was.”
Betty’s name was called and she turned around. Her mother was waving her back to the church. Bud’s casket was being carried towards the front steps.
“Goodbye, Betty Panew,” I said. “It was nice to meet you.”
“It was nice to meet you too,” she said before walking to her mother’s side.
I gave my co-workers assembled on the steps a wave goodbye then crossed the street. I strolled along the sidewalk in the shade of the maple and pine trees and decided to take my time getting home on such a beautiful day.