CAN YOU SPARE A QUARTER
2 - Work Intrudes
Graham ran out of the mall and down the walkway that went over the street towards the subway station. He reached into his pocket, fumbled with his ticket, finally managed to stick it into the validating machine correctly, and then ran down the escalator towards the train platform. He was going to be late for his meeting downtown and he was never late. Graham prided himself on always being on time, even early if possible. Nevertheless, being late was the last thing on his mind right now. Graham reached the platform while a train was still in the station and just managed to squeeze into one of the subway cars as the doors began to close.
Standing in the subway car Graham could see his reflection in the glass window staring back at him. It might have been his imagination, but the reflection seemed to be looking him over and was not impressed with who it was seeing. Graham's business conscience was battling with his moral conscience and was losing the fight badly. Finally, Graham had to look away, seeing those reproachful eyes glaring back at him was just too much to take.
Graham knew that he did not have much of a choice, but that did little to relieve the turmoil he was feeling inside. He had been entrusted to take care of the business deal at the meeting and Graham always did his best to live up to his commitments. On the other hand, he had walked away and left a youngster who obviously needed help. The conflicting business and moral obligations were not sitting well inside Graham, and his stomach was in knots.
After the long run from the suburbs to the downtown core, the subway train finally pulled into the central city station, and Graham emerged from the car, looked around, and spotted the exit he wanted. He quickly ran over to the escalator leading up out of the ground and became stuck in the middle of a large crowd of people and had to ride up slowly to street level. The offices of the company where the meeting was to be held were two blocks away, and Graham, despite having recently turned fifty-five, ran most of the way.
Arriving at the entrance to the Haida Forest Products building, Graham paused for a moment to catch his breath. He was not in poor physical condition, but running like this was more than someone his age could handle easily, particularly when he had spent most of his life sitting behind a desk. Once he was breathing normally again, Graham entered the building, and walked into one of the elevators that were waiting on the main floor. During the ride up to the 27th floor, Graham composed himself and pasted a smile on his face in place of the conflicted look he had been wearing since leaving the mall half an hour earlier.
Graham emerged from the elevator when the doors opened and walked quickly up to the reception area and presented himself. The receptionist was busy on the telephone and while he waited for her to finish, Graham looked up at the large cedar relief carving of an Orca that hung on the wall behind her. The new company logo had been unveiled only a few months ago and the level of artistic skill in it was quite striking. Graham had heard that the company had contracted an artist from a local Indian band to create it for them and the very impressive results were obviously worth the cost.
"Good morning," said the receptionist, after putting down the telephone and seeing Graham waiting. "They've been asking about you."
"Sorry I'm late, but it couldn't be helped," said Graham.
"I'll let them know that you've arrived," she said picking up the telephone again.
A few moments later a door at the side of the reception area opened and out strode a tall grey-haired man. Spotting Graham, he quickly walked over and stretched out his hand.
"You made it," said the man with relief.
"Sorry I'm late, Ron," said Graham trying to quickly think of a plausible excuse. "The boss wanted to talk to me about a couple of things just as I was leaving."
"That's OK," said Ron. "You're always on time, so we knew something out of the ordinary must have happened. Come on into the conference room; everyone is already there. Hopefully, they haven't eaten all the danish yet."
"I really shouldn't, you know," replied Graham. "I have to watch my expanding waistline."
"Oh please," said Ron laughing. "You're packing less weight than anyone around the table."
Walking into the conference room Graham breathed a sigh of relief that he had managed to successfully deflect the issue of his being late. Before sitting down, Graham went around the table shaking hands and greeting the people who were attending the meeting. The box of breakfast muffins in the middle of the conference table was passed around one final time to give everyone a last chance at a morning snack before the meeting started.
It was the final review meeting for the services contract being proposed by NCS to handle computer operations for Haida. If Graham could steer the proposal through this final meeting, it was going to be possible to get it signed off. It would require a deft hand and careful attention to the personalities of the people in the room and their own individual agendas. Graham knew that his boss wanted him to push to get a signature on the deal if he could, but Graham also knew his mind was not as alert as it needed to be. Part of Graham was still sitting with Jamie back in the food court at the mall. Graham picked up the muffin sitting in front of him, took a bite, and tried to clear his head. While chewing the bit of muffin, Graham looked around the conference room table and saw everyone else doing the same thing. At the same time, an image of Jamie asking for money to get something to eat came to his mind. Graham looked at the half-eaten muffin in his hand, put it down, closed his eyes for a moment, and felt completely ashamed of himself.
Graham sighed inwardly, reopened his eyes, pulled a handful of papers out of his briefcase, caught Ron's attention, and the meeting was called to order. After the minutes of the last meeting had been read out, everyone turned to look at Graham. Clearing his throat and consulting the notes in front of him, Graham began to read out the sections of the proposal that were updated since the last meeting. Similar to previous meetings, disagreements between different factions around the table began to surface - once again - over how the sections in the agreement should be worded. Graham had been through this many times before over the last few months, trying to find compromises that would satisfy everyone. Normally, Graham could almost enjoy the verbal jousting, the deflecting of problems, turning requests for changes back into questions for the customer to make a decision on, and otherwise handling the situation. It was like a game of tennis, with the ball constantly being volleyed back and forth across the net between two opponents. By ensuring that he always took each point raised with visible interest and seriousness, Graham found he could usually obtain the cooperation of the person asking the question, and thereby also gained a reputation for listening and being approachable. Graham had learnt over the years, by observing others handling similar meetings. Taking a more combative approach with difficult customers might eventually result in a signed deal, but also tended to damage relations which often made work in the future much more difficult.
This time, however, Graham did not have his heart in it. He felt his mind wandering, and he was constantly battling to stay focused on the discussions taking place in the meeting. More than once Graham asked for something to be repeated and knew he was not at his best by a substantial margin. Graham simply could not get those eyes out of head - those eyes that had looked right inside him. Graham felt certain that if Jamie were to look at him now, he would turn and run in the opposite direction.
Despite his inner struggle, Graham tried to maintain an outward appearance of calm business efficiency. Like a tidal wave rolling almost invisibly through the deep ocean, the calm exterior belied the turmoil taking place within Graham.
The meeting carried on through the lunch that was brought in, and it dragged on into the afternoon, but finally Graham managed to resolve the final differences of opinion between two holdout factions sitting on opposite sides of the conference table. Once he obtained their mutual agreement, Graham took a laptop computer out of his briefcase and quickly typed up the agreed upon changes for the three clauses that they had spent the last several hours debating. He then transmitted the final version of the document to a printer just outside the conference room and it was then passed around the table for final review.
"Does anyone have any final comments?" asked Ron, after everyone had had a chance to read over the changes. "Any more issues that we need to iron out?"
Receiving assent from everyone attending, Ron said, "Great. I think we've done a wonderful job here today. Finalizing this agreement will enable us to move forward with implementation first thing in January. If you can just wait here a moment Graham, I'll step out and go get this signed by our VP of Finance so you can take it back with you."
Ron stepped out of the conference room, and everyone stood up and stretched. It had been a long meeting, but finally, it was over. Graham breathed a sigh of relief that he had been able to make it through to the end. Graham knew his boss was going to be delighted everything had been agreed to and signed off, but that did little to alleviate the fact that Graham was feeling physically ill. That he had been able to negotiate the deal successfully only seemed to make matters worse, and despite knowing that his mind was simply being overly active, did not make the symptoms any less real. It might have felt better, Graham thought grimly, if the deal had not gone through.
Ron came back into the conference room a few minutes later with the signed papers in his hand.
"Congratulations, Graham," said Ron. "That was a fine bit of stick-handling you did today. Getting everyone here to agree on something that detailed is quite a feat. You should come and work for us."
"I'm not sure my boss would be too happy with me if I did that," said Graham with a smile.
"Something to think about," said Ron with a meaningful look. "Someone will have to manage this implementation when it gets started."
"Thanks for the suggestion," said Graham. "I appreciate the confidence. I'll think about it while I'm on vacation over Christmas."
"You do that," said Ron. "We can talk again in the new year. In the meantime, thanks again for all your help with this. It's been a pleasure and regardless of what you decide, I know I can say, for everyone here, we're looking forward to working with you again."
"Thanks very much," said Graham, as he shook Ron's hand. "I'd better get back to the office now; they're going to wonder what happened to me."
"Keep in touch," said Ron, as Graham headed out the door.
It was a huge compliment to have received the not very subtle job offer, but all Graham could see as he put on his overcoat and picked up his briefcase to take the subway back to his office was the face of the boy he had left at the table in the food court. Those blue eyes boring into him, reading what was inside him, and examining his soul. Would changing jobs be the answer to what had been eating at him for the past year or so? While the real answer still eluded him, Graham felt quite certain that a new job was not it. Waiting for the elevator to take him back down to street level, all Graham could think of were those eyes and he pondered how it was that a youngster was almost always more perceptive than an adult.
Graham got out of the elevator when it arrived down in the lobby, went outside, and began to walk back towards the subway station. However, unlike the trip downtown earlier in the day, he was not hurrying on his way back. He knew what was going to be waiting for him when he got back. The boy was going to be gone, and his boss was going to congratulate him for a job well done. Graham avoided looking in the glass windows of the shops as he walked along the sidewalk. He knew who would be looking back at him, and he was not ready to face that.
Back in the shopping mall's food court, Jamie wiped his eyes on the sleeve of his tattered jacket and nursed the last of the orange juice that Graham had bought for him earlier along with the breakfast and hamburger. All too soon it would be time to go back outside into the cold winter air, and he was trying to delay that for as long as possible. Jamie knew that he would never see the man again. He had just been an anonymous stranger who perhaps had felt a bit guilty, and therefore, had bought him something to eat in order to whitewash his conscience. On occasion, Jamie sometimes got lucky and could get a free meal that way, but for the most part he had to earn his meals in other ways. At least the meal Graham bought him meant he would be able to forestall that possibility for a couple more days, before hunger would once again force that situation upon him.
No one had ever cared about him. No one ever would. Why else would the people at Child Welfare have refused to listen when he had tried to explain to them what was happening at home? Why else would he have had to finally run away from home just to survive? Jamie had tried his best to endure it, but eventually he could no longer take what was being forced upon him almost daily. Then there had been that final terrifying night when the drunken midnight visit had left him brutally torn, bruised, and bleeding. No, nobody would ever want damaged goods like him. Jamie knew what he was; he knew what people said about him behind his back; he knew what he was forced to do in order to survive. No one would ever want someone like him. He was for using and tossing aside like so much crumpled newspaper.
Still, Graham did not seem quite the same as the other men Jamie had been around. That had been obvious almost immediately, and Jamie was puzzled by it. Sizing up a man quickly was a necessary survival skill for living on the streets, and while Jamie had dealt with a variety of men in his short life, he had not seen such a gentle look on a man's face before. What could it mean?
While he sat there pondering the mystery, something caught Jamie's eye, and he glanced up and spotted what it was instantly. Far across the food court, one of the mall security guards was moving straight in his direction. Jamie had developed a sixth sense that alerted him to danger, and now it was urgently buzzing within him. Get away! Now!
Jamie dropped the now-empty orange juice container he was holding, grabbed his backpack tightly, and bolted. For better or worse, he had gained a lot of practice in taking care of himself during his time on the streets. The streets taught you quickly, and if you did not pay attention and learn the lessons fast enough, then you were dead. Being alert and quick was what had saved him countless times in the past, and Jamie knew that depending on himself was the best and only way to survive. He was small, thin, and undernourished, but his legs and his brain knew how to keep him safe.
Jamie dove straight into the nearest crowd of people for cover, but did not slow down for an instant. The moment the tiniest gap opened up amongst the throngs of holiday shoppers that had begun to fill the mall, he was through it and picking up speed as he went. Dodging mothers pushing strollers, avoiding collisions with people carrying packages, Jamie wove his way through the crowd at breakneck speed. Shifting direction constantly as opportunities presented themselves, Jamie never slackened his pace.
The security guard however was hot on his trail. He had tried to catch Jamie before, but Jamie had always managed to elude him. It made the guard angry that a street boy like this always seemed to be able to get away, and it frustrated him. It angered him because kids like that should not be allowed in places like this, places where decent people and families came to enjoy themselves; it was just not right his self-righteous worldview insisted.
Seen from above, the chase was between a large, heavily-laden semi-trailer truck and a tiny sports car. Jamie had speed and manoeuvrability on his side, but the security guard had bulk and raw horsepower. Where Jamie dodged quickly in between people and deftly avoided collisions at the last second, the security guard simply plowed on through, pushing people aside as required. Both methods worked. One could admire Jamie's skill and deftness, but the security guard relied solely upon his size and weight to bulldoze his way towards his intended target.
Jamie quickly worked his way through the crowd of people, the exit doors of the mall finally becoming visible, and was still ahead of the lumbering security guard. It was a pure race now, and Jamie switched into high gear and sprinted for it; two hundred feet and he would be safe. Jamie knew the rules. Once you were past the door, the security guards could not touch you. Not legally, at least. However, Jamie had also learnt the corollary: legal niceties were only observed when there were witnesses in the vicinity. If a boy were caught alone, even outside the doors, it would not go well for him. So his feet flew and Jamie hit the doors at a full run rattling the glass. Once he had cleared the door, Jamie kept on running into and through the crowds of people outside and did not look back or slow his pace.
Once he was far enough away and could finally be sure that no one was following him, Jamie slowed to a walk, and finally stopped and looked about. The crowds were beginning to thicken and the air was getting colder. Jamie did not have a watch, but the darkening winter sky told him that a mid-afternoon storm was brewing which would mean rain or perhaps even snow. His stomach was full, which was better than he had been able to say for a couple of days, but he had no particular goal in mind. With nowhere to go, time and destination were meaningless things for him.
Walking aimlessly, Jamie eventually found himself back at the subway station once again. He had not headed there out of any definite plan, it just turned out that his escape and subsequent wanderings had taken him in that general direction. It was also a relatively safe place to pass time and with the weather getting colder being inside the station, being protected from the elements, was a definite advantage.
Suddenly Graham's words came back to him, asking that Jamie wait for him to return later in the afternoon. Why did that come back into his head just now? Jamie knew that he would never see the man again. Certainly he was glad about getting the meal, but at the same time Jamie knew that a meal was all there ever would be, and that the man had totally forgotten about him already.
Nonetheless, something in Jamie's mind told him that he should wait here. He definitely could not go back to the walkway that connected the subway station to the mall where he had first seen Graham. The security guard, angry that Jamie had managed to escape, would, by now, have alerted the others, and they would all be watching for him. They had lousy boring jobs; Jamie knew it and they knew it. The only pleasure they got out of it, if one could call it that, was harassing someone and having fun bullying those that they could. Jamie knew these kinds of people well. He had been dealing with them ever since he could remember, at home and elsewhere, and knew there was no reasoning with them. One could only keep out of their way or suffer the consequences.
Jamie decided to wait in the subway station. Assuming that the man returned to his office the same way that he went downtown, Jamie ought to be able to spot him when he got out of the subway train. Being an expert at making himself invisible, Jamie was confident he would be able to see the man and watch him without being spotted himself. Jamie sometimes fantasized he was a secret agent. It was a game he played with himself - to see without being seen - and, if he got spotted he lost the game. The streets were a harsh teacher, but Jamie was a fast learner out of necessity, and now Jamie never lost the game. When he wanted to be invisible, he was invisible.
He would watch for the man, follow him, and see what happened. He would see if the man would go back to where he had first asked him for money to get something to eat. Jamie knew the man would not go back there, he probably would not show up at all; maybe not even to go back to the office he had talked about, if there even was an office. Jamie knew it was just a story to enable the man to get away from him and leave the food court. This man was like all the others; Jamie knew that, but he would watch anyway. Then he would leave and find somewhere to sleep for the night - maybe underneath the bushes in the park; that might be OK, even if it was getting too cold to be outdoors at night.
Jamie leaned against a pillar in the subway station, bent his head down, and wrapped his thin coat around himself for warmth against the rapidly cooling winter air. He looked like any other boy might look in a subway station on a cold day. That is, unless one looked closely. The coat was ragged, the running shoes were in very rough shape, and the pants had not seen the inside of a washing machine in over a month. Most people these days, however, did not give each other a second glance, let alone a thoughtful look. Jamie knew the routine well: look like he belonged, disappear into the crowd, blend into the background. No one in the station even noticed him, but Jamie saw everyone and everything; nothing escaped his watchful eyes. He would wait.
Graham reached the downtown station of the subway and went down the escalator to the platform to catch the train back to his office. It was already mid-afternoon, and after everything that had happened today, he was going to be relieved when the day was finally over. A subway train pulled in, and Graham was pushed - along with the rest of the crowd - into one of the cars.
Graham ended up stuck next to a window, and once again he could see his reflection looking back at him in the glass. He tried to move away from the window, but the car was crowded, and he was unable to shift position. Graham was going to have to ride out the journey back to the office where he was. Once again, Graham felt like his conscience was staring back at him. The sick feeling in his stomach was increasing by the minute, and Graham could almost see his own reflection come to life and shake its head reprovingly at him. His inner battle over having left the boy in the food court raged on within him, and it seemed like everything around him was reminding him of it. He knew the boy would not be there when he returned. It was rank insanity to think he would be or that he would have waited. Who was he that the boy should wait for him? Graham pleaded inwardly with his conscience that he had no choice and had to leave because of his work obligations, however, the face looking back at him in the glass remained impassive and unforgiving. He tried to console himself with the thought that, at least, he had bought the boy something to eat, but he knew that tonight when he ate his dinner and laid down in his own warm bed to sleep it was going to be of little comfort. Graham knew there was not going to be any sleep tonight or, likely, for many nights to come.
After what seemed like a torturously long ride on the subway, the train finally pulled into the station next to the NCS office tower. Graham managed to squeeze himself through the people in the crowded subway car and popped out of the door and onto the platform. The ride back to the office had an unpleasant feeling of anticipation about it, not unlike sitting in a dentist's waiting room, but that had definitely been the easy part. Now came the hard part for Graham, facing the consequences of his earlier decision to leave and go the meeting downtown. Graham's feet felt like lead, but there was no way to avoid what was coming. He would check for the boy everywhere he could think of, but Graham knew he would be long gone.
When the subway car came to a halt in the station and the doors had opened, Jamie spotted Graham in an instant, even before he had completely exited the subway car. Jamie raised himself from his slouched position against a pillar and riveted his eyes onto Graham while remaining concealed amongst the people in the station. Jamie would follow him, satisfy himself that Graham was the same as all the others, and then go off into the night to fend for himself, as he had so many times before.
Graham looked about carefully as he walked through the subway station. The boy was nowhere to be seen. Graham knew he would not be here, it was ridiculous to think the boy would have waited for him. However, Graham had to look. His very soul - or rather, the now tattered remnants of it after the events of today - demanded that he look. Graham went out towards the entrance to the subway station, retracing his path each step of the way that he had used earlier in the day. He went back over the walkway that connected the station with the shopping mall.
When Graham got to the place where Jamie had been sitting, he stopped and looked around. Graham looked up and down the walkway, but to no avail. The people going along the walkway moved around Graham and continued on past him like an endlessly flowing river, but Graham just stood there and stared at the spot where Jamie had been sitting. There was no trace of Jamie remaining, not even a mark or smudge on the concrete: nothing that would prove he had ever existed. Graham knew - even before he looked - there would be no signs to be found. How could there be? Despite this, however, Graham had to be certain.
Graham looked about at the crowd of people as they moved relentlessly past him, but with so many people moving at once it was impossible to see clearly. It was a forlorn hope, and Graham knew it was hopeless to be looking for one small boy amongst the hundreds of people, but he kept looking nevertheless. He walked onwards with a slower step and paused again a few hundred feet further along and looked around again. Suddenly, thinking that Jamie might have thought Graham meant to meet him next to the mall, Graham walked quickly to the doors at the mall's entrance where they had gone in together. Graham looked around again - still nothing.
Graham's shoulders fell as he now slowly walked back towards the black tower that his office was in. Graham knew he would never see the boy again. It tore at him, and he ached deep inside. He had walked away from a boy who needed help, all for the sake of a business meeting to keep his boss happy and add a few more dollars to the year-end company profits. Graham knew it was likely he would get an extra bonus for having managed to get the deal signed. He also knew it would burn his hands the moment it was handed to him; those same hands that had had the power to change a youngster's life for the better, but had done nothing. He felt like throwing up.
Jamie's eyes had never left Graham from the moment he had emerged from the subway car. With skill that would have made a spymaster envious, Jamie followed him, watched him, all the while keeping himself invisible within the crowd. Jamie saw Graham return to the exact spot where he had sat earlier and had been asking for change from the passersby. Jamie saw Graham go to the doors where they had entered the mall together and again look around. Jamie saw how at the end Graham had finally given up hope and had started to slowly walk back to the office tower with his shoulders slumped and his head hanging down.
Jamie saw Graham looking for him, and he was uncertain about what he should do. This was not what he had been expecting. He was surprised Graham had shown up at all, let alone was actually making an effort to look for him. Should he leave? Or should he let Graham see him? Was this man like all the others or was he different? He had known boys who had gone off with a man but had never returned. He definitely did not want to end up like that. It was Graham's reaction at the end that decided it for him. Jamie could tell that Graham was very disappointed at not finding him and the disappointment appeared to be authentic. While Graham had walked quickly to the spots where he thought it most likely that he might find Jamie, it was obvious that his steps were now laboured and not at all happy. That, plus what Jamie had seen in Graham's face earlier in the food court, made his decision for him.