The Homunculus


He was too young for the Korean War and then too old for the one in Viet Nam so his warrior instincts couldn’t find outlet in the hurley-burley of armed struggle. Nevertheless, in the years between these two wars, young Chuck enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps and served a four-year hitch – who could say, with luck, Ike would start another war. A quick study, he rose to the rank of Staff Sargent and, at the end of his four years, was offered promotion to Gunnery Sargent if he would re-enlist.

As much as he liked the peace-time military, what with it’s pomp, ceremonies, uniforms, decorations and flags, he still hankered for some type of combat. Unable to foresee a time when he could actually thrust his bayonet into the belly of a foe, Chuck opted for combat’s civilian simulacrum, sales. A chum had given Chuck a book by Zig Zigler, that master of salesmanship and mumbo-jumbo, and before a hundred pages were read, Chuck was hooked. With his mustering out pay in hand, our intrepid young man went back to his parents home in Chicago. There, from that safe and secure base of operations, he would launch his new career.

Taking the El into the loop, Chuck shopped at several habidasheries, acquiring two three-button suits, a half-dozen white shirts with button-down collars, five pairs of calf-high black stockings, six ties and two pair of heavy wing-tip shoes (one in oxblood, the other in black). Broad-shouldered lad that he was, the suits and shirts had to be tailored to fit his manly form, a process that, according to the habidasher, would take a good week. “Pick `em up next Monday,” said the clerk, handing Chuck a numbered ticket.

The following day, Chuck drove his mother’s Valiant to the library and checked out several books dealing with the subjects of sales and motivation. These he poured over day and night, committing to memory the key principals and techniques of successful selling. Chuck even pressed his parents into service – he asked them to listen to various trial pitches and let him know which seemed to best fit his persona. “Don’t just tell me what you think I want to hear,” he admonished. “Be absolutely honest; my future depends on it!”

By Saturday, Chuck had become rather polished for an inexperienced young man. However, after listening to the latest incarnation of Chuck’s basic technique, his father sat back in his chair and stroked his chin. Finally the older man spoke, “Tell ya what, boy, ya got a real round face. Ya ought to grow it up some with a mustache.” That night, Chuck outlined a thin Fu Manchu that, by Monday morning, had started to fill in. Being the early 1960’s, it was still too early for facial hair to be readily accepted in business circles, but thanks to the Marine Corpse haircut which he still affected, Chuck pulled it off.

During the week, Chuck’s mother neatly typed a dozen copies of his resume and on Monday morning, he tucked these in a folio binder he bought at a stationary store, and hit the bricks. As it is for anyone making cold calls, Chuck got a lot of rejections but on Thursday, he struck pay dirt. At a place on the near south side called the House of Television, the sales manager, who was a veteran of the Korean War’s Inchon landing, truly appreciated the young ex-Marine’s pluck and verve. The fact that, without even realizing he was doing it, Chuck stood at Parade Rest throughout the interview, closed the deal.

“Ma custmers always feels theyz gonna get hosed when theyz goes out ta buy a TV `n such. Havin an upstanding youngin like you a-waitin on `emz gonna be powerful medicine. Oughtta put `em right at ease. …Cain’t tell ya the last time I had a guy workin for me what wore a suit `n tie!” With that, the owner had his clerk, Clarice, fill out the paperwork and make up a spiffy silver name tag that read, “Chuck – Sales Associate.”

Beaming with pride, Chuck phoned home with the good news, saying he was starting right then and there. “Ask Daddy if he can pick me up at the El station at quarter to ten. See you then. Love and kisses.”

Chuck did not disappoint. That very day he set a record for most units sold in a 24-hour period. By the end of the month, the boss’ head was swimming. “Ain’t seen nothing like `em,” he told Pauli Johnson over beers. Both Chuck and his boss made a wad and after the price of color TV came down to where the masses could afford them, were positively rolling in it.

It was a good life. Chuck bought new cars, new suits, ate out often, and to keep up his Marine Corps physique, took out a membership at Sly’s Gym where he became a legend in power lifting. Because he still lived with his parents (they insisted), Chuck was able to stash a lot of dough in mutual funds and gold futures.

But all good things come to an end. Ten years into their beautiful relationship, the boss stroked out. His widow wanted to head for the sun belt so the day after the funeral, she put the place on the market. Chuck made an offer, but though she liked him well enough, she got a better one from a chain of appliance stores. Due to his stellar performance, Chuck thought he’d be the logical choice to manage the place; after all, he knew the store, he knew the products, and (most importantly, in Chuck’s mind) he knew the customers. But it wasn’t to be. He got a letter from Human Resources telling him he could keep his job, but his commission rate would be reduced by thirty percent and his hours increased by ten each week. To add insult to injury, the new boss they sent in was some long-haired asshole with an MBA after his name and was a good ten years Chuck’s junior. The two did not get along.

Sensing the end was near, Chuck sent out resumes and retained a headhunter. In less than a week, the headhunter called with news of an interview with Western Union Telegraph Company: “They’re looking for a man with a good track record to serve as District Sales Manager.”

“Did he say manager?” Indeed he had. The job would be downtown in the company’s area headquarters. Chuck would manage a troop of seven sales reps and report to the Area Sales Manager, a fellow a scant three years from retirement. Chuck’s head swam with the possibilities. “When do they want to see me?” he asked.

“ASAP,” came the answer.

Feigning illness, Chuck took Wednesday off and had an interview with the Area Sales Manager and his boss, the Area Veep. The latter was drunk on his ass and contributed little to the meeting but insisted on running his mouth for effect. When at last the Area Veep lurched from the room and staggered back to his office, the Area Sales Manager turned to Chuck and announced “You’re hired, kid. Give your two weeks at that shithole, then see how things are done at a real company.”

Recalling his father’s advice to never put his pecker in the payroll, Chuck had been courting Clarice on the sly. But now that he was leaving the House of Television, there was n longer any reason to hide his passions from the world. As he walked to the El station, Chuck resolved that on that very night, he’d declare himself to Clarice and ask for her hand in marriage. Swerving off, he headed straight for Ace Fish’s Pawn and Loan where he bought a large diamond solitaire that had been hocked by an older woman who was outliving her money. Of course, Clarice said Yes and the happy couple set a date to wed.

When Chuck returned home that night, he told his folks the good news about his new job and fiancé and asked his mother to type up a letter of resignation. The next morning, Chuck strode into the long-haired asshole’s office and, unbidden, pulled up a chair and sat down. Tossing the resignation insolently across the desk, Chuck said, “Here’s my two weeks notice. I quit.”

Marital bliss, children and success at Western Union were Chucks. The Area Sales Manger quit suddenly and Chuck was offered the job – which he snapped up after being suitably coy for twenty-four hours. With total control over sales activities, he went about restructuring the department. He wasn’t totally satisfied with his subordinates (District Sales Managers) and cashiered two, replacing them with the fawning toadies, Joe Mucus and Martin Bormann (no relation to Hitler’s deputy). The other, a dark and handsome Scott, he retained.

In spring of 1972, Chuck took the family on three-week vacation to the Ozarks. In his absence, the flashy and often erratic J.J. O’Hair was left in charge. A fellow with whom J.J. had some past dealings, a young-ish telephone consultant named Hugh Paunchly, came by one day to talk about a job. Paunchly explained that his current employer was playing fast and loose with his company’s stock and he wanted out before Uncle Sam showed up. J.J. decided that Paunchly was just the right man to spearhead Western Union’s new thrust into the voice market and hired him on the spot, assigning him to work for the Scotsman.

When Chuck returned, he was miffed to find J.J. had actually exercised the authority with which Chuck had invested him; it is the way of all tyrants to begrudge any independent action of subordinates as it may be the first sally in an attempted putsch. As J.J. had important friends at headquarters, Chuck couldn’t take any retributive actions directly, so he decided to shit-can Paunchly – in this way, he could dis J.J. without actually crossing swords.

Unfortunately for Chuck, Paunchly had gotten off to a roaring start – he was a real rainmaker, that Paunchly. Well, Chuck couldn’t very well afford to get rid of someone who was making his numbers in so spectacular a fashion, so Chuck simply festered with dislike and resentment. To add insult to injury, Paunchly had a repertoire of hair-raising and utterly filthy stories with which he would regale his fellow salesmen and the office staff. When Chuck heard one of them for himself, his dislike and resentment of Paunchly hardened to implacable detestation – Chuck, you see, was a bible-thumping goody two-shoes who wouldn’t say “shit” if he had a mouthful.

In any case, the two settled into an uneasy dtente .

==================

The Scotsman was promoted to Area Sales Manager out in Seattle and Chuck transferred Paunchly to Bormann’s group where Paunchly made even more money for the company. “Well,” Chucked mused sourly, “At least he’s doing some good.”

Late one Friday afternoon, Chuck felt in an expansive mood and approached Paunchly’s desk. “Hugh,” he said affecting a broad smile, “each Friday afternoon, some of the boys and I gather in my office to study scripture, and worship Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Care to join?”

Paunchly looked up from the stack of orders he was writing and said, “Ahh, thanks, but no, Chuck. I’m a Jew, and I’m trying to get out of here before sundown so I can get to services. I appreciate the offer, though.”

Chuck recoiled as if he’d been shot: “A Jew. A Jew! A Christ-killer, right under my nose all these months . . .” The color drained from Chuck’s face; he stammered some words of apology and walked stiffly to his office, closing the door harder than necessary. At home that night, he whined to Clarice of the shocking development: “Can you image – a Jew. In my department.” Over a rare glass of wine, Chuck began to plot a way to can Paunchly without getting his own socks sued off.

Fate, though, had different ideas, for the next day, Paunchly got a call from the Scotsman, inviting Paunchly to Seattle where the Scott would invest him with the title of Manager – Special Systems & Services. Chuck was delirious at the news and almost broke his arm signing the transfer. Paunchly was gone within a week.

In 1974, the company went through a paroxysm of reorganization (something corporations always do when they begin to fail) and Chuck found himself promoted to Area Vice President – Seattle. He was thrilled to tears, but, gad, he would once again have that heathen, Paunchly, under his aegis. “Well, this time,” said Chuck vowed, it would be different: “One way or the other, I’m gonna get rid of that foul-mouthed Christ-killer – even if I have to make up something.”

Paunchly was not thrilled at the news of Chuck’s promotion and had his wife, Jo, help him polish his resume. “That bigoted cocksucker’s gonna find some way to get rid of me. You’ll see,” he told her.

And sure enough, Paunchly was right, though the denouement would take a few weeks. Chuck’s first order of business was to see the Scotsman off to a promotion and install his favorite old toady, Joe Mucus as Area Sales Manager. Two weeks later, the blow finally fell; Paunchly’s phone rang. It was Mucus: “Hugh,” came the high, nasal voice, “it’s Joe. Could you come up to my office, please?”

Hanging up the phone, Hugh Paunchly walked, with a rueful smile, into the office of his new, best, working buddy, Royal Andersson. “Well, this is it; Mucus wants to see me. I’ll call you tonight.”

Royal extended his hand in condolence. “Damned Chuck. Think that horse’s ass will give you enough time to clean out your desk?

“Not a problem,” Paunchly snorted with a dismissive waive, “I cleaned it out the day I heard that motherfucker was coming here. The only reason I didn’t quit right then is that I want my severance money – and I can only get it if the shithead cans me. It’s not going to be a lot, but it’ll give me a few month’s wiggle room.”

Hugh, rose, went into the hall and headed toward the Executive Wing on the north end. Brushing past Sally, the Executive Secretary, with a perfunctory “I’m here to see Joe,” he turned into Joe’s office.

Joe, his greasy hair set in place by a wide-toothed comb, sat behind his oversized desk. He rose to shake Hugh’s hand, then gestured to a single chair set in the middle of the floor. Seated in another chair off to the side along the wall, was Chuck.

Baring his whited teeth, Joe announced that he was making some changes. “I’ve got to reduce the emphasis on Special Systems and Services. The company wants to concentrate on MailGram. I’ve got to let you go.”

“Nothing like beating around the bush,” Paunchly thought.

Joe Mucus talked on for a while then threw the ball to Chuck, who chimed in with some flatulent BS about how Hugh’s talents could really shine in a better venue, yack, yack, yack.

While Chuck was going on, Paunchly’s attention was once again drawn to the man’s feet. Ever since he met Chuck, Paunchly thought the feet looked odd. To Hugh, Chuck’s heels looked weirdly long. The distance between where the Achilles tendons met the heel bones at the top of the shoes down to the bottom of the shoes was way, way too deep – as if Chuck’s heel-bones were malformed. Paunchly couldn’t take his eyes off those feet, especially as Chuck was sitting cross-legged making his right foot almost within touching distance. Besides, Hugh realized, this was the last time he’d ever see Chuck, so if he were to figure it out, it was now or never.

While Chuck continued to drone on, Paunchly scrutinized the feet . . . “Holy shit!” Hugh suddenly saw it, the toe of Chuck’s shoes had a layered look – Hugh could see a line of demarcation coming from the instep and going around the toe “The goddamned things are built up! The little asshole’s wearing elevated shoes. Chuck’s wearing stilts! Why, the goddamned homunculus!”

Hugh Paunchly’s stunned concentration was broken by Mucus’ voice calling his name. Returning his attention to the meeting, Hugh saw that both Chuck and Joe had finished talking and were waiting for some response. “Sounds good, guys, I’ll go clean out my desk,” he said as he stood and moved toward the door. Then he stopped and turned. “Oh, by the way,” Hugh said snapping his fingers as if in afterthought, “When may I expect my severance check?”

Joe and Chuck shot quick glances at each other. “I guess they thought I’d forgotten about that,” Hugh though with amusement.

Joe spoke first: “Give it two weeks, Hugh, then come in and I’ll have it ready for you.”

“Sounds like a plan, Joe.” The two shook hands. Hugh acknowledged the Area Vice President with a nod and “Chuck,” then left.

The revelation about Chuck’s elevated shoes was just too delicious to keep to himself. Before returning to his desk to retrieve his gittchie bag, Hugh walked into Royal Andersson’s office and told of his discovery. Royal smiled: “You didn’t know? Oh, hell, I spotted those things the first day.”

The two made amiable chit-chat for a mew minutes then Hugh said, “I’d better get out of here before I get you in trouble. Want to get together this weekend?”

Walking past Royal’s secretary, Paula, Hugh paused to say goodby and in doing so, mentioned Chuck’s stilts. Paula was surprised: “No,” she said, a broad smile appearing.

“Oh, for sure,” Hugh replied. “Look, here’s how you can tell,” he said. Hugh took his pen from his pocket and drew a shoe on Paula’s legal tablet. “You’ll see this line around the toe . . .” Paula had suddenly acquired a stricken look and had begun to fidget. Hugh looked around over his shoulder and, Jesus H. Christ, there stood Chuck.

Hugh Paunchly felt a knot tighten in his stomach. But just for second: “Wait a minute,” Hugh thought. “This shithead just gave me the axe. What am I worried about.”

“Chuck,” Paunchly stood and addressed his former superior, “I was just telling Paula about your elevated shoes. Come on around the desk so I can show her where the things are built-up.” So flummoxed by Paunchly’s disclosing the awful truth, Chuck actually complied and moved two steps closer.

Using his pen as a pointer, Paunchly bent toward Chuck’s feet and explained to Paula how she could spot the build-up – “Here, around the toe, then back here under the heel.” With that, Paunchly stood, faced the Area Vice President and said, “Thanks, Chuck. That’ll be all,” then turned his back on the good gentlemen. With that, Hugh extended his hand to Paula, who was looking studiously at the floor, and bid her adieu.

After dinner that night, the Paunchly’s phone rang. It was Royal: “What the fuck did you do the Chuck?” Royal asked with a laugh. Royal explained that within an hour of Hugh’s departure, Chuck was going up and down the hall, shoe in hand, stopping people and asking them to inspect the shoe. “There’s a rumor going around,” he’d say with bugged out eyes, “That I wear elevated shoes. I want you to take a good look at this shoe of mine and tell me; does it look like an elevated shoe to you?” Both Royal and Hugh had a good laugh.

On Friday afternoon, while Hugh was preparing to mail out some more resumes, Royal called again: “Guess what,” Royal said upon Hugh’s answering. “At this morning’s staff meeting, Chuck whipped off a shoe, passed it around the table, asking everyone to look it over and tell him that, No, it’s not elevated. Well, of course, everybody did and did.”

“Christ,” Paunchly replied, “I don’t mind tweaking Chuck’s nose a bit this sounds serious. Sounds like he’s coming unhinged”

“He was positively ranting,” said Royal in a worried tone. “You really destroyed the poor fucker.”

==================

The two week interval passed and Mucus called with news that Hugh’s final check had arrived: “Can you come in tomorrow? You have to sign a couple of forms.” Hugh agreed.

Pulling into the parking lot the next morning, Hugh Paunchly spotted Chuck’s blue Olds 98. “Didn’t think he want to be around when I came in. Maybe I should have brought my gun.”

In the foyer of the executive suite, Paunchly greeted the Executive Secretary in a low voice so as to not alert Chuck, who’s office door was open. The last thing Hugh wanted was an ugly confrontation – all he wanted was his money, to forget the whole business, and to move on. “Joe will see you now,” the executive secretary said in a half whisper as she hung up the phone.

Joe Mucus sat behind his desk, on top of which sat an envelope and two pieces of paper. Joe and Hugh shook hands and Joe explained that the check was in the envelope and the two sheets of paper were the releases; if Hugh would please sign them, things would be concluded.

Just then Chuck came rolling through the door like a wounded rhinoceros. “You and I need to talk, Paunchly.” said Chuck in his finest Marine Corps command voice. “Sit down.” Chuck’s face was beet-red.

Hugh and Chuck took the same chairs as they’d occupied two weeks before. “I’ve got a bone to pick with you, Paunchly.” Chuck whipped off his left shoe and, leaning forward, thrust it rudely in Hugh’s face. “Take a good look at it, Paunchly, and tell me, does it look like an elevated shoe to you?” This last was said with an earnest and hopeful voice.

Hugh Paunchly took the proffered shoe, hefted it, looked at it from the front, the side, the rear and from the sole beneath, then pondered it for a few moments more. Finally, having satisfied himself of the shoe’s construction, he handed it back to its waiting owner: “Sure does, Chuck.”

The Area Vice President’s red face took on a look of deep pain and sadness. As he leaned forward in his chair, he fixed Paunchly with a hurt look and asked a question straight from his heart: “But why did you have to tell everybody?” Chuck seemed near tears.

All humor gone now, Hugh Paunchly looked at Chuck directly and replied, “I didn’t tell everybody, Chuck; I only told Royal and Paula. You told everybody.”

As the truth of what Hugh Paunchly just said sane in Chuck looked as if he’d been poked with a pin. Giving a single, strangled bleat, Chuck bolted from his chair, tore his elevated shoe from Paunchly’s hand and ran limping from the room. A second later Mucus and Paunchly heard Chuck’s office door slam.

Hugh Paunchly and Joe Mucus looked at each other in silence. Hugh finally spoke: “Well, I guess I’ll take my check and go.” Standing, he shook Joe’s hand and said farewell.

======================

Paunchly went back to his former calling and put Wester Union behind him. Chuck didn’t last much longer either, thanks to the humiliation he’d suffered at Paunchly’s hand. He lit out for Texas where he opened a mens’ apparel shop that offered duds and shoes for the smaller man. To his credit, Chuck ditched the elevated shoes and, to the end of his days, walked the earth at his natural height, telling Clarice, “If that miserable Jew-bastard Paunchly could catch me out, I guess anyone could.”

-Merlin-

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