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The International Writers Magazine
: Dreamscapes Fiction : Close of Business

Last Meeting  
Martin Green 

Paul Lerner was in his office, packing the last of his personal items.
It was a Friday morning, his last day at work as a research specialist for California’s Department of Health in Sacramento.   As of next Monday, he’d be retired.  

Britney Sanders, secretary to Dennis O’Neil, his section head, came in and somewhat breathlessly told him that Dennis was held up in San Francisco so Paul would have to go to the Division’s weekly staff meeting in his place.   She thrust a folder into his hand, saying that it contained the section’s latest projects.   “You’d better hurry,” she said, “the meeting starts at ten.”  
Paul looked at his watch; it was a few minutes after the hour.  “No rush,” he said.  “They won’t start without someone from our section.”   He was teasing Britney, who was a stickler for punctuality.  As she started to protest, he said, “Don’t worry.   I’ll make Dennis’s excuses.”
When Paul entered the meeting room, everyone else was already there.   Dr. Sylvia Hardcastle, the Division chief, was seated at the head of the table.   At 40, she was an attractive woman with reddish hair, green eyes and, Paul had always thought, the best legs of any State manager.  The heads of the Division’s other two sections, Roger Sedgewick, who was ten years older than Paul, and Bobby Edwards, a youngster in his thirties who could nearly pass for a teenager, were seated with paper cups of  coffee in front of them.  Also there was the Department’s Deputy Director, Dave Mitchell, a political appointee whom Paul regarded as representing the worst of the State’s system, a know-nothing concerned only with looking good in the eyes of the Governor and legislators.   Mitchell had his coffee but instead of being in a paper cup it was in a big monogrammed cup.
“Sorry,” said Paul, taking a seat at the lower end of the table.  “Dennis got stuck in San Francisco and couldn’t make it.”
 “Nice of you to come,” said Mitchell, glancing at his watch.
 Paul was tempted to reply with a common obscenity.   Instead, he said, “It wasn’t by choice.  And I didn’t even stop to get coffee.”
 Mitchell opened his mouth to say something, but Dr. Hardcastle smoothly cut in.   “Now that we’re all here, why don’t we get started. Roger, you first.”
Paul barely listened while Roger Sedgewick droned on about his section’s activities.   He knew that Roger’s wife had died a few years ago and that his four children were spread about the country.   Roger had been with the State for God knew how many years and the last two Division chiefs had strongly hinted it was time for him to retire.   Paul suspected that Roger was holding on because his job was the only thing he had left and he was afraid that, without an office to go to, he’d have nothing to fill his hours.   It was a thought that had flitted across Paul’s own mind every now and then.   What would happen when he woke up and had no place to go that day?   He’d told himself  that he’d take care of that when the time came.
When Roger at last came to an end, Dr. Hardcastle told Bobby Edwards that he was next.   Bobby immediately launched into a speech which made it sound as if his section had dozens of studies going which would solve most of the State’s problems.  He was clearly trying to impress.   Paul wondered how long it would take for Bobby to figure out that nothing his section did would appreciably alter things.   
Paul’s experience as a State employee had been a hard grind.   He’d come to the State  in his late thirties, after the research firm he’d worked for since college had suddenly closed its doors.   At that time, written exams were still given and with his knowledge of statistics he’d advanced to a midlevel research position fairly quickly.   Then written tests were replaced by so-called oral exams and those who advanced were the astute office politicians.   He’d finally become a section head only to find that the politicians who provided the funds for research studies already knew the results they wanted.   He’d gotten into trouble several times because he tried to give honest answers, once or twice with Dave Mitchell, who’d wanted him fired.   Luckily for Paul, it wasn’t easy to fire State employees.   Instead, he’d been removed from his section head position and appointed as a research specialist, where he did studies but had no part in administration.  
Through it all, Paul had tried to conduct himself professionally.   At times he hated going to his office, but after the experience with his research firm and the months of unemployment that had followed, he knew the importance of security, especially since he’d acquired a wife and three children.   The State had a good health insurance program and a decent, if not spectacular, pension.   Taking advantage of his State security and of his skill with numbers, he’d begun making investments.   The truth, thought Paul, was that the reason he was able to retire now was that the stock market had in the last few years finally turned up.   He’d planned to reach a certain amount, and when he did he immediately filed his retirement papers.   The irony of it was that he almost liked his present job, being able to fix the information system for the Division’s health care clients with little interference from the bureaucrats.  
“Paul?”   He came out of his reverie to realize that Dr. Hardcastle was looking at him.   It must be his turn to give a rundown of his section’s activities.   He tried to do so as briefly as possible, at the same time mentioning that the section was being asked to do too much with too little staff.   
“I see,” said Dr. Hardcastle.   “I understand you’re leaving us.”
“Yes,” replied Paul.   He didn’t know that she’d even been told of his retirement.
“We’ll miss your expertise.   I’m glad you managed to patch up our data system before you left.   Do you have any last words of wisdom before you go?”
Paul was tempted.   Here was his chance, to tell them what he thought of the State system, that it was rotten and corrupt, that employees who spent all their time promoting themselves got ahead while those who did the actual work were ignored, that managers pandered to political appointees like Dave Mitchell, that everyone from department heads on down were so obsequious to the politicians and their underlings it was sickening.   But he’d been a professional all this time and he’d go out as one.   Besides, what was the point.   Venting would change nothing.   At the end of the day he’d be out of all this and that was what counted.
“No, except that I hope we can remember that we’re here to do our best for the people in our program and not for anything else.”
“Thank you.   Now, as you can see, our Deputy Director is with us this morning.   Dave?”
Dave Mitchell cleared his throat.   “Yes.    As you know, the State is in a budget crisis.    The Director wants everyone to trim, cut and squeeze.   He singled out this Division especially for excessive spending.    Travel and equipment expenses are high.”Dr, Hardcastle broke in, “We’ve always kept within our budget.”
“Barely,” said Mitchell.  
“The idea is to come in below budget, the lower the better.   It’s also come to our attention that your people have been taking excessive break and lunch times.   That also amounts to a waste of money.”
Paul knew that Dr. Hardcastle’s Division was known for giving its employees relatively free reign; the thing that mattered to her was getting the job done     “I think the results we’ve produced speak for themselves,” said Dr. Hardcastle.    Paul could see from her high color that she was angry.    “I’ll speak to the Director himself about these matters next week.”
Now Mitchell colored, the implication being that he was a flunky and that Dr. Hardcastle would talk directly to the person that mattered.   “The Director specifically told me . . .,” he began.
 Dr. Hardcastle stood up and said, “This meeting is adjourned.”
 Mitchell said, “I’ll decide when we’re . . .”
 Paul also stood up, his arm as he did so knocking against Mitchell’s coffee cup, which spilled its contents over Mitchell’s suit.   “Damnit,” exclaimed Mitchell.   “You did that on purpose.    You may think because you’re retiring that you can get away with anything, but I’ll get you.   Your retirement check isn’t automatic, you know.”
 Again Paul was tempted to reply with a common obscenity.   Instead, he said, “Didn’t you hear Dr. Hardcastle.   The meeting is adjourned.”   With that, he took his folder and left the room.
Back in his office, Paul cleared off his desk, packing one or two more personal items.   Well, he reflected, it had been an interesting last meeting.   He went over to his window and looked out.   Starting tomorrow he’d be out there.   He wasn’t sure what he’d do but made the decision that tonight he’d take his wife out to dinner..   There was a soft knock on his door and Dr. Hardcastle came in.   “Oh, good,” she said.   “I’m glad I caught you.   I wanted to say good-bye.”   She held out her hand and Paul took it.   “Thanks for all your good work.   I’ll call you next week.   I want to buy you lunch.”
“All right.   How’s Dave Mitchell?”
“Still fuming, but don’t worry about it.   And don’t worry about your retirement.   I’ll handle him.”
Paul was sure she would.  He watched as she left his office.  Great legs.  He felt a twinge of regret at leaving her, not because of her legs, he assured himself, but because she’d been a good boss.    Then he thought of Dave Mitchell and all the others like him.  It was time to leave.  He hefted the box with his things, looked around at his office and then closed the door for the last time. 
 © Martin Green June 2005

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