When I was young, 40-some years ago, Ben Gibbons, a salesman in his mid-fifties, seemed well past any prime he’d ever had. Instead of a briefcase, he carried two leather shopping bags snapped shut at the top. They bulged with who-knew-what. I and my co-workers called him, ‘Two-Bag’, though not to his face. But he knew the nickname, for I often saw a frown on his puffy cheeks whenever someone said it. Then, he’d remove the wire-rimmed glasses perched on his thick nose and rub the lenses with a cloth pulled from a sagging front pocket, and fix the speaker with a glare. But he never spoke in self-defense.
He attended meetings, paid attention to the lectures Mike McKey, the company president, liked to give the sales team, and sometimes sat with the few older employees and engaged in quiet conversation in the break room.
Shortly after joining the company, Valley Accounting and Tabulation, and meeting Two-Bag, I had as much disrespect for the man as anyone. Those leather bags were the start of it. His baggy pants and crumpled sports coat added to my contempt. We joked about his odor and made fun of his grumbling way of talking.
Valley Accounting and Tabulation sold computer services: keypunching that converted paper sheets into bricks of 80-column punch cards, and accounting and payroll services that consumed hand-printed forms and spat out pay checks.
Shortly after I joined the company, an electronics manufacturer gobbled it up and Mike McKey was installed as president. Before McKey, VAT didn’t even have a computer. Five elderly women commanded twelve-key adding machines and stored customer records in cardboard binders.
McKey leased an IBM 360 computer, tacked on additional rooms to the original office space, added keypunch machines and operators, a dozen clerks, an expanded sales force, and set the company to humming. Inside of two years VAT went from 50 clients to 700-plus.
Soon, the old ladies disappeared. As did other seniors. Two-Bag remained. There’s a photograph of the former employees. It hangs on a wall in Reception. In it, the ladies smile behind their desks, Two-Bag stands in the background, and the former owner smokes a cigar outside his office.’The Crew of 1952′, reads the caption taped under the frame.
Sometimes I’d see Two-Bag standing near the photo, looking.
I worked in the computer room. We kept it so cold that I had to wear a sports coat all the time. I paid scant attention to office politics and kept my circle of friends limited to other computer operators and a couple of the programmers. I didn’t flirt with any of the lovely receptionists that came and went. I didn’t hang with customer service clerks or anyone from Supply and Mail. I didn’t visit the room where twenty-some keypunch operators labored like slaves aboard a galley, clicking keys instead of moving oars.
Among my friends, all of us in our early 20s, anyone over 30 was ripe for ridicule.
One day in ’74, I stood in the corridor leading to the frosty computer room and watched our beautiful receptionist, a temp-worker named Sally. No one sat on the leather couch or any of the three chrome-and-leather chairs. Two-Bag stopped to view the picture of the ‘The Crew’ on the wall.
“What do you have in those bags?” I said, so curious I couldn’t stifle my question. “I never see you put anything in them and I never see you take anything out, but you carry those bags around all the time. So, I’m asking, what’s in the bags?”
Two-Bag inhaled. Visibly.
“Am I asking something I shouldn’t know?”
Sally, the receptionist put fresh makeup on her bubbly face, eyes shining and blonde hair gleaming. One of my friends from the computer room crossed reception, threw Two-Bag a glance, and walked in my direction. Two keypunch operators chatted on their way from the break room. A customer service clerk stopped to speak to Sally. Someone from Supply and Mail gazed in my direction.
Two-Bag glared at me. “So you want to look.” He opened one of his leather shopping bags and showed me the contents. I looked down, expecting a jumble of papers, but saw a face that laughed and glared. A distorted face. A version of my own, as though I’d looked into a mirror. But it wasn’t. A mirror.
I turned away from what I saw. Turned from the ugly face at the bottom of the leather bag. What I saw consumed me. It grew before my eyes, even after Two-Bag shut the bag and left the office.
What I’d seen burned behind my eyelids.
I brushed past Mike McKey, who said, “What’re you up to?”
“Didn’t you see Two-Bag Ben a little while ago?”
McKey snarled, “That’s Mr. Gibbons to you, kid. Remember that.”
Those words rattled me. They stayed in my mind, as did the recollection of my face looking at me from the bottom of that bag. The memory followed me: to my next job, my next city, my next decade of life, and all the decades afterward. As I chased after success, I realized I should thank Ben—Mr. Gibbons—for what he showed me. Without that face firmly planted in the back of my mind I would’ve never questioned what I believed about myself, would’ve never doubted what I knew or what I felt. Because of that old man, I ran from my youthful ugliness, rushed from the mocking laughter on that face, fled the sight of those scornful eyes, and strove to correct the feckless boy I’d been.
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After a long and successful career as a software developer and technical architect, David has turned to a first love: SF, fantasy, and magical realism. He has published stories in Martian Wave, Farther Stars Than These, Fast Forward Festival, Encounters and other online as well as print magazines. Feel free to visit http://www.davidsjournal.com, where David expands on his eclectic interests.