What struck him the most was that he didn’t find it funny. Tom Hartley was the leader of the pack when it came to summer “diversions,” but his latest tale had given Alan a feeling of unease that he hadn’t felt before.
Tom had stopped into Alan’s office Tuesday morning ostensibly to talk about the previous week, but like it always did, the conversation devolved.
Tom leaned in Alan’s door around nine a.m. wearing a striped shirt, sleeves rolled up, and no tie. He was shorter than Alan, only 5’6”, and his wavy black hair curled around his ears.
“Of course not, just back from a week away! Have a seat. I have a half hour—are you coming to the Lucky Stores meeting today?” Alan asked.
“Nope,” Tom replied. He had taken the wide leather chair by the window. “I gave the art director what he needed on Friday. But I thought you might want details of what happened around here last week so you could impress everybody—like the master you are.”
“Thanks,” Alan said with a two-fingered gesture like a salute. “I appreciate everything: the new account man on this seems to have trouble with original ideas. He has been a pain in the ass.”
Tom snickered. He and Alan both knew the drill. Account people always questioned the creative department. But account men had to answer to the client, so unlike themselves, their friends upstairs were forced to live by contracts and deadlines.
“How’d it go out there?” Tom asked. “Get any action on the casting couch?”
Alan smiled but felt a jab of embarrassment.
“We have footage for at least three, thirty-second commercials,” he said. “And much as Mel tried, I didn’t take the bait. No girls, no dates.”
Tom shook his head and sighed with feigned disappointment. They talked about the dynamics with Mel, the agency’s West Coast producer, and the disaster avoided in one California store when the film crew had blown the electrical circuits and the refrigeration had gone down in the meat department.
“All in a day’s work!” Tom quipped.
Alan used the phone to ask his secretary, Doris, for some coffee.
“You like cream, right?” He asked, looking back at Tom.
As they continued, Doris appeared, her roundness held together in a snug gray dress with too many buttons.
“Thanks, Doris. How are the session arrangements going, Tom?” Alan asked.
Tom complained about scheduling the studio musicians. There had also been an art director melt-down, and he had resolved a disagreement over some of the graphics.
“They still may be late,” he explained. “But overall it was a good week, and you are on track. So, now can I tell you the real reason I came in here?”
“Go on, but make it quick.”
“I took up with a gal who writes copy for CBS News.”
“Oh no, not another!” Alan grinned, listening with one ear, but thinking, what do they see in him? He’s a smooth talker, but he’s noisy and spoiled. He’s loyal to his friends, but a complete con man. Maybe it’s the hair. Girls find that sexy. And what about Ella? She teaches at Hunter and raises those kids. He’s a lucky man to have a wife like her.
“This one is twenty-five and she has a Labrador retriever,” Tom continued. “She wants to bring the dog to my apartment.”
“Where’d he sleep at her place?” Alan played along, but he began to feel annoyed. Tom was leaning back, the view of rooftops and water towers stretching far beyond him out the window. Was he for real? Yes, Alan thought. Remember the last story about the newscaster? But that had been funny, hadn’t it? Tom was still talking.
“At the foot of the bed. I thought one night the son of a bitch would break my ankles the way he jumped on the bed, and the hamburger bills were unbelievable,” he told Alan.
“You bought hamburger? What, to win him over?”
“Yeah, to show I was pet-friendly.”
“You know a dog can die from hamburger meat,” Alan replied cautiously as he licked off the sugar from the teaspoon in his cup. “In fact, a dog could die on sirloin if that’s all you fed him.”
“Well, he doesn’t get sirloin. And he doesn’t get top round or chuck either. She says to get him just hamburger. And it’s still expensive as hell.” Was he boasting? Alan thought.
“Does he like you?” Alan asked.
“Not particularly. But he isn’t an angry dog or anything. Not like a police dog or a Scottie.”
“Mean bastards. Really mean.”
They both laughed at the absurdity. Tom obviously enjoyed sharing his yarns, and he was laughing at himself, but there was something pathetic about the whole thing and Alan felt Tom knew it too.
“Time for me to get to that meeting,” Alan said, turning to his desk.
“Sure. Fill me in later.” Tom added, taking out a pack of cigarettes as he moved towards the door.
“And, for what it’s worth, drop the dog.”
“Yeah. Summer’s almost over.” Tom smiled and strode away up the hall past Doris’ desk.
Alan rose, chose a sharp pencil from his cup, and grabbed a blank pad. Was this boredom or disgust he felt?
The whole thing wasn’t funny. Like a Red Skelton gag he’d seen too many times. Had he lost his sense of humor? First day back at work and something had changed.
© Lisa Anderson 2017