Mr. Grumpy, by Norman Waksler

Matty Mercer, forty-two, short, round, and muscular, worked in the shipping room of Fosse Distributing: Industrial Supplies. Despite an innate irritability exacerbated by a tight budget and a chronically painful left leg, he was taken as given by the rest of the Fosse crew. As long as a guy does his job, pitches in when needed, understands the rules of hierarchy and humor, workers will tolerate almost any quirk of personality. But no one gets off free. They accommodated Matty’s irritability by nicknaming: behind his back they called him Mr. Grumpy; to his face they just called him Grumpy, which he took as good-natured teasing, something of an honor, and a bit of an insult.

The owner of the company, Dan Fosse, a few inches over six feet and a hole or two past a size 48 belt, was unsurprisingly known as Big Dan, though not to his face. Otherwise he was just Dan or Boss.

His workers respected Big Dan because he’d built the company himself and because he was approachable, though you had to be careful not to forget he was the boss. Since Big Dan dealt with so many companies and had so many business connections, he was able to work deals on everything from car jacks to refrigerators, a knack he enjoyed showing off  and encouraged his employees to take advantage of. So when Matty decided that his oldest boy Louie deserved the new bike he wanted it made sense to see if Big Dan could get him a bargain, maybe even something at cost.

“I’ve got a better idea, Matty,” said Big Dan. Seated behind his gray metal desk in the back office, he was taller than Matty standing. “Dan Junior just got a new bike, twenty-one speeds. Why don’t we sell you his old one, fifteen speeds, top of the line. You could have it for, say, $150.00. Even at wholesale you couldn’t get anything close to that good for that money.”

Mr. Grumpy didn’t see why kids needed fifteen speeds on a bike, never mind twenty-one, but Matty knew it was the kind of thing Louie wanted. Still, he had to say, “That sounds like a good deal, Dan, but it’s probably more than I can afford. Four kids,” he added to make sure the boss didn’t think he was complaining about his salary.

“Of course,” said Big Dan. “Well how about this? Pay Dan Junior $25.00 a week for six weeks.”
“Dan Junior?

“Sure. It’s his bike. It’ll teach him something about the responsibilities of doing business for himself. “

Dan Junior was a narrower version of his father, big for his age with more to grow, though unlike his father, he spoke softly as if his voice hadn’t developed in proportion to his height. Big Dan had him working in the front office three days a week, filing papers, stuffing envelopes, adding figures, whatever other clerical work could be found for him. But Dan Junior was something of a problem for the men. It wasn’t that he was a bad kid or made trouble. It was that he didn’t know how to be the boss’s son; and a fifteen year old among working adults; and just another guy doing a job. This made him awkward around the crew – sometimes too friendly, other times distant as though he thought he shouldn’t be friendly at all, and consequently the men, always aware he was the boss’s son, were uncertain and uncomfortable with him.

Mr. Grumpy didn’t want to say to Dan Junior’s father that he didn’t give a rap about teaching business responsibility to the boy. Nor could Matty tell Big Dan that he felt bad enough, a man his age unable to pay out of pocket, without having also to make weekly payments to a fifteen year old like paying off a car loan. “Thanks, Dan,” he said. “That’s a nice offer. But that way Louie couldn’t get the bike till the end of summer. Maybe I’d better get something cheaper from one of the chain stores.”

“No problem, Matty. Louie can have the bike first thing. It’s not like we’re never going to see you again, right?”

Physically speaking, Matty’s irritation took the form of a kind of boring-bar that spun deep in his chest, and as soon as he saw he was trapped, it began a slow, morose turning. He considered waiting a couple of days then claiming that Louie had committed some teen offense which made it wrong to reward him with a bike. But not only didn’t he want anyone thinking his son was a bad kid, it would be unfair to Louie who, if no saint, was as responsible a fourteen year old as you could hope for.

Instead, Mr. Grumpy revenged himself with new heights in short replies to his fellow workers, no more than grunted yeses and noes, unless full sentences were absolutely necessary.

He was even short with  Mel Wilson, the easy-going warehouse manager who always downplayed his authority, worked alongside the men when needed, filled in when someone was sick. Still it was his job to keep tabs on his crew. “What’s up, Grumpy? Leg bothering you, or are you just mad at the world?”

Mr. Grumpy hitched up his pants defensively. “Take your pick,” he said.

“That’s too bad, Matty.” Wilson said. “But I hope things look up soon,” he added  in a mildly supervisory tone.

“Someday maybe,” said Mr. Grumpy, thinking ahead to the week after his last payment for the bike.

Yet the first payment didn’t start off badly. Matty was just punching in when Big Dan and Dan Junior found him. Big Dan said, “The bike’s in my car. Why don’t you move it to yours now in case we leave early. Here, Danny,” throwing the kid the keys, “You and Matty can take care of it.”

Matty was sure the other guys in line already knew he was buying Dan Junior’s bike, and buying it on time to boot, but he could shake off his embarrassment because he knew  all the guys with families were as broke as he was.

The kid followed Matty to Big Dan’s Mercedes in the owner’s slot, aimed the key tab at it, and the trunk floated open. “Well, there it is,” said the boy.

To Matty the silver and blue bike on its side in the trunk didn’t look anything special, hard to see what made it so expensive in the first place, but if Louie thought it was special, it would do fine.

As Dan Junior lifted the bike out and tabbed the trunk shut, Matty said, “My car’s over there,” pointing to his Corolla, which was already too small for the size of his family, and also, it seemed, too small to fit the bike in.

“That’s all, right, Matty,” said Dan Junior  “The front wheel comes off. Like this. See.”

He spun a lever and just as he said, the wheel slipped out of the forks and the bike tucked into the trunk, the wheel lying comfortably on top of it. “Oh. Ok, Dan, thanks,” said Matty. “And here’s your….. money,” holding out the two tens and a five he’d put in his shirt pocket that morning.

“Thank you, Matty,” the kid said, then from his back pocket he pulled out a small spiral bound notebook and a ballpoint pen, opened the notebook to the first page and made an entry.

Up to now Matty had managed this business in a state of sour acceptance, though it hadn’t helped that he had to look up at Dan Junior, already six inches taller than him. But the little notebook offended Mr. Grumpy, and when the kid wrote on another page, ripped it out and handed it to him so he could read “Matty – $25 – July 8,” he resented the neatly printed receipt for nailing down the fact that he was in debt to a fifteen year old boy.

At home Matty’s irritability was moderated by comfort and the limits of his wife Tina’s tolerance, but in any case Louie’s surprise and multiple thank-you’s would have let his father feel that it wasn’t such a bad deal after all. A view which naturally changed as the next payment came due. That day Mr. Grumpy drove to work knowing there’d be no bike exchange to sweeten the occasion.

The warehouse beyond the shipping room was a high ceilinged space of gray shelving, concrete floors, large bins, and brown cartons, with a broad central aisle and side aisles wide enough for the forklifts. Sometimes when his leg was too painful Matty would adjourn to one of these side aisles for a few minutes, sitting on one carton, the leg up on another. Everyone, including Mel Wilson, knew about these unscheduled breaks; no one bitched.

Possibly the leg hurt more when Matty was at his grumpiest, because that day he needed two extra rest periods, and it was during the second that he looked up and saw Dan Junior coming toward him saying, “Oh, there you are, Matty. I’ve been looking all over for you. My Dad wants to leave early so I wanted to catch you before we left.”

It wasn’t that Matty had been deliberately delaying the payment. He’d seen the kid earlier, but had hoped to catch him where others wouldn’t see the notebook; which should have made this turn of events ideal. Except that Mr. Grumpy bristled at being chased down like a delinquent tenant trying to avoid his landlord, and Matty was embarrassed to be caught slacking off by the boss’s son. “What’s up, young Dan?” he said, as if this were merely an unexpected visit from the kid to one of Matty’s normal locations.

“Uh….” Dan Junior gestured with the notebook.

“Ah, right. Payday for you, isn’t it?” Mr. Grumpy hated the forced jolliness in his voice.

The boy ducked his head a couple of times.

“Here you go.” Matty handed over a ten and three fives.

“Thanks, Matty,” the kid said, and went through the routine with the notebook and the receipt which he handed to Mr. Grumpy, who waited until the kid had left before limping back to the shipping room.

Matty decided he wasn’t going to let that happen again. Next time he’d find Dan Junior instead of waiting to be found somewhere inconvenient. But Mr. Grumpy balked at the thought of going into the front office to pay the kid. The two secretaries there were all right, never talked down to the warehousemen, cheerfully handed out pay envelopes Friday afternoon, and more than likely knew Matty owed Dan Junior for the bike. It didn’t matter. Mr. Grumpy would be stickily embarrassed to do business with the boy in front of the two women.

Instead he hitched up his pants, opened the office door, and stepped partway in still holding the knob. The secretaries and Dan Junior looked up. “Hi, Matty,” said Andrea, the longest serving of the two, “What can we do for you?”

“I wondered if I could speak to young Dan for a minute.”

Andrea looked at the kid who said, “Oh. Sure. I’ll be right there. Just let me finish this,” pointing to whatever paperwork he was involved with.

Matty closed the door. Minutes later Dan Junior opened it. Matty said, “Got your notebook, Danny?”

“Oh. Right. One minute.”

Mr. Grumpy wondered what the hell else the kid could have thought he wanted him for.

“Sorry, Matty,” the boy said when he reappeared.

“That’s all right. Here you go.” Handing over three fives and ten ones.

They concluded the with the usual receipt, and for a change Matty was content with how business had been conducted. So he would have approached the next payment with equanimity if his daughter Allison hadn’t developed a cavity that required a dentist visit leaving him way short of the twenty-five dollars; because of course you don’t sacrifice your daughter’s teeth for your son’s bicycle.

That morning Matty drove to work in a fog of embittered gloom as he anticipated the skin crawling humiliation of having to tell a fifteen year old boy he couldn’t make his payment for the week, asking to be let off until the following one. But once he’d punched in and imagined calling Dan Junior out of the office, Mr. Grumpy rebelled: it was asking too much of a working adult, a husband, and a parent to lower himself like that. Instead he spent the day with an eye out to avoid the kid, stayed away from the office end of the building, stayed out of the break room, had his snacks and lunch on the receiving platform by himself.

Possibly the kid thought Matty would seek him out in the front office again, because it wasn’t until very late in the day that Matty heard one of the men say, “Hey, Dan Junior, how’s it going?”

Which was Mr. Grumpy’s cue to exit the shipping room and flee into the warehouse proper, hearing behind him, “Have you seen Matty?”

“He was here just a minute ago.”

There were two bathrooms at Fosse distributing. The front used by anyone in its neighborhood; the back used almost exclusively by the workforce. It was to this back bathroom that Matty limped at his slow fastest, slipping in and locking the door behind him.

And there he was alone with the shallow sink, commode, gray floorboards, chicken-wire window, and carbolic smell. He put the lid down on the toilet and sat resting his leg. If a man’s home is his castle, a large locked bathroom with its isolation and security from intrusion is a comforting substitute. Matty figured he’d stay long enough for Big Dan and Dan Junior to have gone home, leaving Mel Wilson as always to check out the building and lock up.

Despite a day’s packing and lifting and tense avoidance of the kid, Matty didn’t doze in the long, silent bathroom, but he settled into a welcome lassitude. So he was first startled, then disappointed, then infuriated by a series of knocks on the bathroom door and Dan Junior’s soft call, “Matty? Matty? Are you in there?”

Mr. Grumpy closed his mouth so tightly he was afraid he’d crack his teeth.

Another series of knocks and “Matty? Matty?”

It seemed cruel to Mr. Grumpy that he could be hunted down and trapped this way, and still had to keep from telling the boss’s son that he had the heart of a mafia debt collector.

“Matty? Matty?”  This time followed by the doorknob being turned and shaken.

Mr. Grumpy wondered how long Dan Junior would keep this up before he decided that Matty wasn’t in there, there was a problem with the lock, went away.

Then, “Matty? Are you ok?”

Now Matty could see worse on the horizon. The boy would  decide that something bad had happened to him, like a heart attack, then go find someone to force the door. If Matty thought it was humiliating to beg off a payment, to be caught hiding in a bathroom to avoid it would be a disgrace Mr. Grumpy couldn’t redeem. He supposed he could sneak out of the bathroom and into one of the side aisles while the kid was off looking for help, but the thought of scuttling from hidey-hole to hidey-hole like a nervous mouse was so embarrassing to Mr. Grumpy that Matty said, “Yeah, Danny. I’m fine. Hold on. I’ll be right out.”

He flushed the toilet, ran water in the sink, pulled a sheet from the towel dispenser. When he opened the door, Dan Junior was a couple of feet away holding his notebook, and before the kid could speak, Matty said, “Look, Dan, I’m a little short this week. I’ll catch you next week. OK?”

“Yeah. Sure, Matty,” the boy said, “That’s OK. I don’t care. This whole thing was my dad’s idea anyway.” He raised the notebook as if to show that it too was his father’s idea. “I never wanted to bother you about the money.”

Of course Matty knew it had been Big Dan’s idea, but Mr. Grumpy had simply forgotten. The kid was as stuck in this business as he was, and just as uncomfortable it looked like. But it frosted Mr. Grumpy that he’d been sweating and suffering over the twenty-five dollar payments, and the twenty-five dollars meant nothing to the kid.

Then the boy said, “Please don’t tell him I said that, Matty. Please.”

Matty could hardly imagine himself telling on Dan Junior to Dan Senior, but the boy’s fear was unexpected and disturbing. “Don’t you worry, Danny,” said Louie’s father. “It’s just between you and me. We’re in this together.”

“Thanks, Matty. I’ll see you. Bye.”

The kid hurried toward the front with the lightness of an untroubled fifteen year old.

“You’re still here, Grumpy,” said Mel Wilson behind him.

“Oh. Just leaving.”

“Bad stomach?”

“Something like that,” said Matty.

*

Norman Waksler has published fiction in a number of journals, including The Valparaiso Fiction Review, Prick of the Spindle, The Yalobusha Review, The Writing Disorder, and The Jewish Literary Journal.. His two story collections are the Book of Regrets (Main Street Rag Press) and  Signs of Life (Black Lawrence Press).  He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His website is NormanWakslerFiction.com. Nice dog pictures on that site.

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