S C U B A Š 1998 by Jerry J. Davis Thirty stories up, sitting next to a wall-sized window staring out at the dirty Chicago rain, Jack sat at a long table with tense men and women who listened to each other with the intensity of sharks smelling blood. The rain, the murky air …
it reminded Jack of the ocean at 85 fathoms; dark, grey, barren.
The animal life imitating plant life. Jack stared out the window and tried to pretend he wasn’t in a three piece Italian wool suit that made him chafe and itch.
“Jack,” a voice said.
He blinked, and turned toward the people in the room.
Everyone was staring at him. “Yes?” he said.
A few muttered in disgust, the rest looked bored. There were business suits, long and short hair; blond, brown, black; some faces had glasses, others had carefully trimmed beards and mustaches. Eyes darted, roamed, stared un-focused. The man conducting the meeting had gone prematurely gray, had sharp blue eyes, glasses, sharp nose and chin. Wrinkles were beginning to form along his hollow cheeks. “Your department’s phone bill,” he said to Jack.
“What about it?”
“You haven’t been listening. I would appreciate it if you’d pay attention here.”
“Sorry,” Jack muttered. “I’ve been working late.”
“Working late? On what?”
Jack didn’t have an answer. It had been a spontaneous lie, he had nothing to back it up. Long, silent seconds proclaimed his guilt.
Neil Cromwell smiled. “Go get some coffee and when you’re awake I’ll talk to you in my office. You’ve got …” he glanced at his watch “… twenty-five minutes.”
Jack felt his cheeks burning. It was like being sent out of class for being a bad boy. “I’ll be okay,” he said. “What were you asking me?”
“No. I’ll talk to you later. Go on, you’re dismissed.”
Jack got up and walked around the table, ignoring the looks he was being given. Pushing the door open, passing through, letting it close itself behind him.
He stopped at the coffee machine and noticed the new girl, the blonde, and realized she was smiling at him. What was her name? Christie? Looked like a soap-opera princess, all T&A plus make-up and mousse. “Pour you some coffee?” she asked.
“Yes, thank you.” He took one of the company cups, held it out as she poured.
“You need this stuff really bad?”
“It shows, doesn’t it.”
“A little.” She smiled again, all her pearly whites shining up at him. This baffled Jack. If she wanted to make it by seducing key executives, she was picking the wrong guy.
“My wife usually makes me a pot before I leave,” he told her, making an emphasis on the word “wife.” “I have a little thermos and I finish it during the commute downtown.”
“Really, you shouldn’t depend on coffee so much as a stimulant,” she said. “What you need is vitamin B-12.”
“Yeah, I remember B-12. I used to take a lot of vitamins when I was diving.”
“I used to be a diving instructor. Scuba diving.”
“Oh?” She seemed very interested. “How did you get from there to here?”
Jack grimaced. “It’s a long story,” he said, and turned to leave.
“There’s no short version?” she asked, following him.
“Well … DGD Corp bought my father’s family business, and I came with the deal.”
“They bought your diving school?”
“Oh, no, it was the Harvest division, my father’s company.
They wanted him to keep running it, but he was too ill by that time. I was signed in his place.”
“So you’ve got a contract with the company?”
“So they can’t fire you, can they?”
“Not for a few more years, at least. When the contract expires.” He stopped and looked at her suspiciously. “Why would they fire me?”
“No reason I can think of.” She winked at him, then walked off toward whatever mysterious position she’d been hired for.
He passed through the commons, which was filled with people in their cubicles, and entered his office. His position rated a office and a receptionist, but they’d laid his receptionist off.
He now shared a secretary with 5 other men in the sales department, and all she did was litter his desk with “While You Were Out” memos. He sifted through them, sending the majority fluttering into the waste basket. Bill collectors, people wanting money. They called all day.
Jack closed his office door behind him, sat in solitude at his desk with his coffee. He was going to have to start seeing the psychologist again, he could feel the panic coming on. Deep breathing and meditation weren’t enough anymore; he was out of control. The sensations of sinking and drowning were coming back.
He sat and stared out the window, fighting it.
It was ghosts, he knew. Real ghosts. Ghosts were the cause of his problems.
Jack knew there was such a thing as ghosts. He could prove it, he had physical evidence in his wallet. The money in his wallet, the money he and his wife spent on groceries, it was ghost money. It was money that wasn’t really there.
His wife Peggy, Miss Cameron Cove of 1992, didn’t understand.
She saw money in the account, she saw a deposit that was his paycheck, and she thought they had money and so she would spend it. She couldn’t understand that it was money that was already spent, already gone. She spent more. He spent more, because he had no choice; they must continue living. Now checks were bouncing, bills were going unpaid for months, and still he kept slipping behind. It was out of control.
Yesterday a nice young woman came into his office and asked if he were Jack Buchman. He admitted he was – he felt no reason to hide anything from her, he took her to be one of his wife’s friends – and the woman handed him an envelope and rushed out of his office as if it were about to explode. It was a summons, he was being sued. His car payments were behind and the finance company had lost its patience. It would probably be repossessed any day now.
Jack had an attack right after the woman had left. He felt he couldn’t breathe, like he was literally drowning. He came to his senses sometime later, found himself on the floor behind his desk.
He had passed out.
It was $60 to see the psychologist. Cash, up front. His psychologist knew why Jack was having problems and didn’t intend on become one of them (he said). Jack figured he could be telling the truth, but really he believed that the $60 was more important to the psychologist than Jack’s mental stability.
Outside his office window it was as murky as Cameron Reef.
Dirty rain poured down on gray concrete leaving gray streaks on windows, dissolved traces of the building itself. The rain ate away at the stone, at the pavement; it ate away at Jack’s car, seven months old and already the paint was faded, oxidized from the acid in the air. Jack stared at the rain, but in his mind he was seeing Cameron Reef at 85 fathoms, the deepest dive he’d ever made. At 85 fathoms the ocean was black, the water cold and murky with plankton and dead matter that drifted down from the surface to the cold, motionless bottom. The bottom was gray, soft mud lumped together in shapes from the subconscious mind – it looked like the place your soul goes to when it dies, the soul resting like a lump of mud next to the other lumps of mud, dead, featureless, undisturbed for millennia.
It was during that dive that Jack had an attack of nitrogen narcosis, almost killing him. He hadn’t gone diving since. He had fully intended on going back down – nothing in his mind was telling him to give up diving – but this was when his father sold the company due to illness and had sent for Jack to help. Now he was here in Chicago, trapped, instead of going back and challenging the reef. Jack sipped his coffee, staring out the window. He preferred the reef, narcosis and all; narcosis was, at least, an enemy that could be anticipated.
Jack’s boss, Neil Cromwell, was a giant in his own mind. When he closed his eyes and pictured himself he saw this enormous, inflated figure, like a parade float, sitting in a giant chair at a fifty-foot desk while everyone else in his sight went about their jobs at his feet. They were tiny, fragile little people who all scurried about carrying out his will.
When Neil pictured Jack Buchman in his mind, he saw an anomaly, a misshapen cancerous figure that didn’t belong, bigger than the others but still dwarfed by himself, a flaw in the perfection of his world. Jack knocked on Neil’s door and let himself into Neil’s office, and Neil stared at him the same way he’d stare at the one last remaining piece of a puzzle that would not fit into its hole. “You’re fifteen minutes late,” he snapped at Jack.