Paul Hutchington’s suit was perfectly pressed, his forty-six year old face groomed, smelling good. His office was organized and neat with nothing on his desk, the computer behind him turned off, the tower and monitor cold to the touch. Later in the afternoon, when the sun is falling to the west, he’ll see dust floating in the air like drifting galaxies. When that happens, he’ll close the blinds so the dust won’t distract him, just as he’s done nearly every day for the last eighteen years.
There was a quick knock before Jimmy McGooken opened the door. He held his faded red cap in both hands near his groin. “You wanted to see me?”
Hutchington stiffened in his chair and placed his hands on his desk. “Yes,” he said, “I need you to see what Teddy’s up to.”
“Sure thing,” Jimmy said.
Hutchington coughed. “In the basement.”
“Oh,” Jimmy said, dropping his cap to the floor and reaching down for it.
“I know,” Hutchington said soberly. His instinct was to smile when he spoke to his employees, even when he was handing down bad news; it behooved him to be so somber despite the circumstances.
“I heard you sent Andy down – that true?”
Hutchington shook his head slowly and stopped himself. “It was Teddy who went after him, Jim. Like I told him, get to the button, press it and find Andy and the rest.”
Jimmy nodded, thinking Andy must’ve been the one sent down to find Tony Ackerman, who was sent down to find Luke Beaumont, who was sent down to find Ed Crabapple. There were others before Ed, but they worked in a different department and Jimmy didn’t know their names.
All of this started when Alexander De Graff, one of the general managers, decided to inspect the basement and press the button everyone but him knew not to press. Those who were close by heard the ancient doors unlock, the victorious cries of the things escaping, quickly followed by De Graff’s screams. So far the problem had been isolated to the basement for whatever reason and it was widely believed all would return to normal if the button was pressed again.
Jimmy was thinking about these things, but more importantly, he was wondering if his brother Andy was alive, and if he’d see him again either way. And this button, would pressing it again make a difference? His mouth betrayed his fears by ignoring them, and he said, “I’ve been meaning to ask where you get your suits.”
Hutchington smiled, relieved by the change of subject and enjoying the smile while it lasted, even though he knew Jimmy was stalling. “Couldn’t say. The wife orders them for me. I put on whatever’s in the closet.”
“She’s got a good eye then.”
“That she does. I’ll tell her you said so.”
“Please do. Thanks.”
The room was quiet again. Jimmy wasn’t moving. Hutchington was impatient for him to leave. Hutchington opened the top left drawer and removed a stack of paper. He straightened the papers, tapping the stack on his empty desk. He did it just to look like he was doing something.
Jimmy said, “I don’t know if I can do this.”
“You can, Jim,” Hutchington said, trying to ignore Jimmy’s shaking legs, his pants moving like drapes covering an open window. “I need you to do this.”
“What if it can’t be done?”
“It can.” Hutchington adjusted the confidence in his voice. “It has to.”
“I don’t know.”
“Listen, sooner or later that button’s got to be pushed and then we can get back to doing what we do.”
“Those things – I – I’m scared,” Jimmy said, a tear falling off his chin. “Not afraid to say it.”
“Neither am I.” Hutchington wouldn’t look at Jimmy’s face anymore. He heard or imagined hearing the tear landing on the wooden floor like a lonely raindrop. “Go get your brother, Jim.”
Jimmy turned for the door. He opened it and paused, his feet shuffling. Hutchington exhaled, not wanting to hear another word from Jimmy’s mouth, not wanting to hear a repeat of what the previous eighteen men had said, not counting the first two men because they didn’t know what was waiting for them down there. For a long moment, it did look like Jimmy was going to speak, but instead he wiped his face with the back of his hand and left the room, his cap returning to his head. The door closed quietly behind him.
The clock on the wall ticked closer to five, the noise sounding like a man clicking his tongue mockingly. It was Friday. Next week Hutchington might have to consider hiring new people. He pressed his thumb and index finger to the bridge of his nose, feeling a headache coming on. He wondered what the wife was cooking for dinner, wondering if maybe she’d surprise him with his favorite.