A bonus for Christmas
(College journal from 1981)
I stared down at the check Donald had handed me as if he or me or even Stanley had two heads, or that this was some artifact from some alien planet, an envelop with my name on it, resembling the envelops I’d received each Friday since I’d started six months earlier with my pay check in it – only this was a Monday, not a Friday, and I’d already been paid the Friday before.
“Well, aren’t you going to open it?” Stanley asked, looking at me with those puppy-dog eyes of his, the way he would likely look in two days when he watched his kids opening presents under the tree.
“What is it?” I asked, thinking the worst, recalling how I’d been fired from the theater with an envelop containing my last pay check and a pink slip.
“What do you think it is?” Donald asked, slightly back from where Donald stood, all of us crammed into the front where Carmella’s desk hogged up one side of the room, and a few chairs sat against the wall across from it.
“I’m scared to say,” I said.
“It’s a bonus,” Stanley blurted out, drawing a dark and disappointed look from Donald, who turned to me with something of a rare smile, the edges of his moustache rising that seemed unnatural to a man who perpetually seemed in a dour mood.
“For Christmas,” Stanley said.
This totally blew me away and for several reasons.
Until that moment, I’d seen Donald being as generous as a five-year-old with the last remaining gumdrop clutched in his sweaty hand.
He was also Jewish, and I wanted to say, “Jews don’t believe in Christmas,” but was savvy enough not to blurt this out.
Of course, a number of Jewish vendors I picked up goods from over the last few months had wished me well for the holiday and had their stores decked out with Christmas tinsel, I thought that was only good business, since most of those who shopped there were gentiles.
But this was different, striking me the way I might have been struck seeing Scrooge on Christmas morning after the three ghosts had paid him a visit, and I wondered just which ghosts had visited Donald to make him so generous.
I didn’t have to say any of this. I saw a kink of twisted humor in Donald’s eyes, bloated by his small glasses, as if he was enjoying my awkwardness more than he might have at me being appreciative over the Christmas gift.
His lips twitched under his moustache, again defying his basic nature with a strange smile.
Carmella sat behind her desk as non-committal as a Buddha.
I didn’t know how any of them expected me to react, so I just sputtered and tried to say something that remotely sounded sincere, and tried to make sense of Donald, who clearly contradicted himself, someone who crafted as public image as a tough business man and yet did stuff like this, who got his haircut twice a month so that he seemed as unchanging as a statue, and yet at this moment, two days before Christmas, seemed utterly different, if not in the way he looked, then in the way he seemed to look at the world.
Later, I would reflect on this moment and realize that this was my bar mitzvah, my first season’s rite of passage from gentile to the Jewish son.
I stuttered out a thank-you which was more a reflection of my confusion then my appreciation but Donald took it is one, picking up his pipe and sucking on it and for a few seconds he pretended to look out through the window behind Carmella’s desk at the busy world in the parking, then went back to the inner sanctum of his office as Stan and I made our way back to the warehouse, now quiet after a hefty six months of insanity, carts lined up around the packing table like elephants headed towards some mythical graveyard.
My head already spun with too many issues, public and private, the resignation of a president along with my resignation to give Louise – my estranged wife – the divorce she wanted, Donald giving me a check serving as a kind of salve to ease the pain of another Christmas without her or my daughter.
“So, what are you going to do with the money?” Stan asked.
I glanced down at the green slip as if it was counterfeit.
“Hire private eye,” I mumbled, as Stan’s dark eyebrows rose.
“What?” he asked, his large hands clutching a collection of Chanel Number Five bottles he intended to relocate to a shelf across the warehouse, near Donald’s cabinet where the special stash got locked away, but not quite deserving of the distinction of being guarded as well.
I faked a laugh and told Stan I intended to buy some presents, for Pauly, Garrick, Hank, my mother, my aunt, and the host of siblings I would see on Christmas, the bonus coming just in time for me to get to Willowbrook Mall for rushed shopping spree.
Of course, Stanley had received a bonus, too, I found out then, and I asked him what he would do with his.
“It’s not enough to buy a house,” he said. “That’s what my wife really wanted for Christmas.”
He apparently had another kid on the way finances were getting hairy.
Donald, he said, kept telling him how Stanley had a future here and how things would get better, but all Stan saw as the dusty old warehouse, and the now-empty tray where the orders were kept, and seemed to envision this as another version of the sheet metal factory in Harrison where he had labored for ten years with the dream of putting on a white shirt some day and not needing to sweat out his shifts the way we all did now.
His bonus went towards survival it kept him from floundering totally alone in the water.
Donald had that unique way of shining a light now and then only the ship never came which it was supposed to be attached to.
There was always that feeling of drowning was just an inch or so away.
Stanley said he had to see his mother on Christmas she was, according to his rather sketchy narration a determined woman who wouldn't leave her old neighborhood in Newark if it burned down around her,
His father had died there in 1962, a year or so after Stanley graduated high school and started to work full time at the sheet metal plant where his father had worked before him.
Stanley started down at the bottles he held, treating them as if they were rare piece of sculpture. While Donald saw these things as gold, sand treated them as if they were nitro his scarred fingers surrounding them as if sculpting them from steel.
He said his mother thinks that if she is leaves Newark, she would be leaving her husband.
“We’ve asked her to move in with us,” he said. “We only live a few miles from where she lives now. But she won’t do it.”
That's when the office door slammed, and the familiar heels clicked on concrete floor again.
“What? You’re not through putting that stuff away yet?” Donald said. “I give you two a bonus and this is what I get?”
I cringed, but Stanley smiled, his six years prior to my coming giving him a better read of Donald’s moods than I had, although there still seemed pain in Stanley’s eyes.
“We’re almost done,” Stanley said.
“Good,” he said. “Then we can all leave, maybe get a drink before we go.”
Even Stanley frowned, apparently struck by something odd in our boss’s behavior.
“Yes, a fucking drink,” Donald said. “What’s wrong with that?”
“Nothing,” Stanley said, “Although it seems strange that we’d be drinking on the clock.”
“Nobody said that,” Donald said. “You’ll punch out first.”
I didn’t go with them, so I never found out why Donald was in such a mood that day, and never saw him in that same mood again.