When we returned to the office, Bell had gone, but something of him lingered. It wasn’t the foul odor of his food that, to our relief, receded. Before I could comment on what seemed to hover about the room, Nabokov Said, “Smell that? That cloying scent? That’s his cologne. I don’t mind cologne, but why does he have to soak in it, for Christ sake?”
We all reseated ourselves around the table. Everyone was quiet for a couple of minutes and I became eager for Nabokov to begin her tale. I was not concerned about the time remaining in our lunch break. We could take, as long a lunch as we wanted. Our supervisor, Dan Orchid, was working at regional headquarters, as he did every Wednesday. We were dedicated to our jobs and even periodically loyal to Dan, though not at all on Wednesdays. Dan wasn’t a terrible boss, but his mannerisms did irritate most of the members of our department. His slightly curved posture sent his face far forward ahead the rest of his body, which strained to catch up to it. And his habit of scurrying among the different departments on our floor, his eyes sliding rapidly right and left, made many people uneasy. His ambition fueled his frenetic movements, though he rarely accomplished any genuine work. When in our office, however, he possessed preternatural vigilance monitoring each one of us while we worked.
“Well, are you going to tell them about Bell?” I asked her.
“Yes.” She replied. “Just give me a minute to clear my head. After sneezing a few times, she began her tale. “Ten years ago…”
Finn O’Brien had been standing at the back of the corporate auditorium waiting for annual autumn meeting to commence. Finn had worked at the company for eighteen years and had witnessed the staff expand and contract as the whims of management fluctuated from one business philosophy to another. Of course, some of the staff had to be asked to leave for various ethical or criminal violations. Naturally, when offenders balked or threaten to sue, management provided positive recommendations even for the most salacious behavior. Fear of litigation or any stain of ignominy always terrified the bosses and blunted the edge of their occasional resolution.
Finn himself once tiptoed along the precipice of dismissal guilty of chronic lateness to the office. It seemed his nocturnal poker games plundered his hours between midnight and morning, and made arriving on time to work a feat beyond even his prodigious endurance. We used to amuse ourselves watching him speed his old Ford through the parking lot, jump from his car and run toward the main entrance, his long hair in tow flowing straight behind him. Bill Headly, our supervisor back then, saw something worthwhile in Finn, and saved his job by reassigning him to the company warehouse down by the river. At the warehouse, no one cared who came late, or early or in between. Finn had found his perfect perch, happy among the gulls who fed upon the debris that collected behind the building and along the river.
As he stood there, Finn surveyed the seats on the off chance that somewhere in that crowded auditorium he would find a single seat between two individuals he did not know. Finn was quite sociable, even gregarious, but on that morning his hangover was particularly acute as it splayed tentacles of pain up the back of his head, over his scalp and down his forehead into his eyes. Finn would have enjoyed “chatting up” some young attractive female, had not his typical morning disposition extinguished even the whiff of sensual desire. Just then he noticed the perfect spot to plant himself and drift off to sleep. He took a step forward, but was arrested by a hand gripping his left arm. “Been a long time, Finn. How have you been?” It was Dr. Jonathan Bell, his eyes fixed firmly on Finn’s face.
Finn said, “Fine,” but before the sound of the word attenuated into silence, Bell embarked on a monologue of his assorted summer travels to exotic countries in tropical climates. Finn knew it was too late, that he was trapped; he cursed himself for not moving faster to the seat. What intensified his anguish was he knew Bell would share stories of the intimate encounters these travels freed him to indulge in. To Finn, it seemed that Bell didn’t realize how much better it would be to keep secret behavior that would, if discovered, have gotten him jailed even in those exotic lands. But Finn supposed that the compulsion that drove Bell to engage in this behavior also compelled him to tell someone about it. Finn had a weakness for gambling and drinking, but unfortunately he also suffered from that execrable flaw of having too much kindness. Regardless of what people told him and despite the extent of their immoral behavior, Finn would never criticize anyone, no matter how far that person strayed from morality or even common decency. And naturally, people sought him when they needed to reveal what should have remained secret.
But suddenly something happened to save him from hearing Bell’s more troubling and sordid details. Through a side door of the auditorium strolled a young man dressed in a khaki suit. Though Finn did not notice him, his presence immediately captured Bell’s attention.
Nabokov broke off her narrative at this point, and along with my young colleagues, I wanted her to continue the tale. “Why are you stopping now?” I stammered.
“Because I have work to do and can’t spend all afternoon sitting here with you three.” We must have appeared inconsolable, since she looked at all of us and then said, “Listen, we can continue tomorrow during lunch. Besides, there is so much to tell that we will need several hours if I am to describe fully the best parts of Bell’s story. With that she rose from her chair and walked away with incontestable pride and dignity.