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Empty Air

By T.R. Healy

"The airwaves are empty enough," one of the earnest telethon hosts reminded the viewing audience. "And I can assure you they'll be even emptier if KWIK, your home of intelligent and informed programming, is not supported. So please contribute whatever you can, ladies and gentlemen. A hundred dollars, fifty dollars, twenty, ten, whatever you can afford."

Almost immediately some telephones began to ring at the desks of the volunteers, including the one in front of Norris. He was surprised because it had rung only a few times all evening.

"Thank you for calling the fall pledge drive of KWIK," he answered cordially as if addressing a close friend. "How much are you willing to invest in the future of the station this evening?"

"Is this Norris Almond?"

"It is," he said, surprised the caller knew his name since there were no name cards on the desk. "How did you know?"

"I thought I spotted you when the camera showed some of the volunteers answering the phones and I called in and asked to speak to you and now I am."

"I'm sorry but I don't recognize your voice."

"I didn't figure you would."

"But we've met, I gather?"

"Oh, we've met all right. I interviewed for a position as a loan officer at First Federal where I see you're still working. That was nearly five months ago."

"And your name is?"

The caller ignored the question and went on, his tone growing sharper, "You promised you'd get back to me but you never did."

"It must've been an oversight."

"I doubt it," he snapped. "I've dealt with people like you before, people who say things they don't mean. You never had any intention of getting back to me."

Norris, knowing the caller was correct, did not reply but scribbled idly on the notepad beside the cranberry-red phone.

"I needed that job. I needed it as much as I ever needed anything in my life. And I thought I had it based on everything you told me. In a few days you said you'd let me know, in a few days."

Norris started to hang up then hesitated, the receiver still pressed against his ear.

"You never got back to me as you promised," he continued. "So I got back to you, and I want you to know I intend to get even with you for your callousness. You owe me, Almond! You owe me big time!"

Before Norris could respond, the caller hung up, and an angry wasp began to buzz in his left ear. He continued to smile, though, in case the television camera might be panning his desk again.

*

The next day at the bank Norris could barely concentrate on the various matters brought to his attention. His office was directly opposite the main entrance of the bank so whenever someone came in he could not help but look up to see if the customer was the caller who denounced him last night. He did not remember what the person looked like, since he had conducted several job interviews over the past five months, but thought he might be able to detect the anger simmering in his eyes. He did not identify any possible suspects, however. Everybody who entered the building seemed anything but hostile and scarcely anyone made eye contact with him but walked straight to one of the tellers to make their transactions.

The next day was similar, as were the next two, the customers in as good a mood as most of his colleagues, and by the end of the week he scarcely bothered to look at the people who filed through the door. He did not forget the call he received during the pledge drive, however, and continued to try to remember the different people he had interviewed the past five months. He had probably told lots of applicants he didn't hire he would get back to them and never did, but he just assumed they were mature enough to realize they had not got the position and would explore other prospects. He could not believe anyone would become so upset because he had not personally notified him of his decision to offer the job to someone else. The guy could not really be serious, he reckoned, he must have had too much to drink the other night and wanted him to know he had made a grave mistake.

He thought it unlikely he would hear from him again but he was wrong. Toward the end of the week he received in the mail a large manila envelope which contained a crisp new brown paper bag. Pinned to it was a note which said, in bright red ink, "Something to wear over your head the next time you appear on television. You jerk!"

*

Norris was stunned when he received the paper bag, almost as much as he was when the guy telephoned him during the telethon. He also was very angry and wished somehow he could find out who this person was so he could threaten to bring a harassment action against him. He considered asking some colleagues at the bank if they had received any unusual messages recently but then thought better of it, figuring what happened between him and this guy was none of their business.

He crumpled up the bag in his hands and tossed it in a wastebasket along with the note.

He would have to stay alert, he realized now, regarding everyone who entered the bank with a keen eye. There was no telling what this imbecile might have in store for him next time.

*

A few days later, after working late on some escrow documents, Norris noticed someone looking at his car as he headed out to the parking lot. For an instant, he thought it was a security guard but as he got closer he realized it wasn't. He had never seen the person before, and, immediately, wondered if it was the guy who had been bothering him the past two weeks.

"Is there something I can do for you?" he asked, his voice sounding a little tense.

"This your Charger?"

Norris nodded. "Why do you ask?"

The short, barrel-chested man continued to walk around the gleaming muscle car, peering through the windows as if he had lost something on the floor. "My old man used to own a car like this one," he explained. "I spotted it as I was driving by so I thought I'd stop and have a closer look. It brings back a lot of good memories for me. Hell, maybe it's even the same car my old man had."

"I doubt it."

"You never know."

"My uncle sold me this car. And I'm pretty sure he bought it new."

"Oh."

Norris figured the guy would leave but he continued to peer through the windows.

"You mind if I sit behind the steering wheel?" he asked, grazing a finger along a strip of chrome.

"As a matter of fact, I do mind. It's been a long day and I have to be on my way."

"It'd only take a minute."

"Can't you understand the word no?"

The man was startled by the irritation in his voice and stepped back from the car door.

"What do you want?" Norris demanded angrily.

"I told you I was just doing some reminiscing."

"You're the guy who sent me the paper bag, aren't you?"

"Excuse me?"

"You're the one."

"I'm afraid you've got me confused with someone else, mister."

"I don't think so," he barked. "Now get the hell away from my car or, I swear, I'll call the police."

"What're you talking about? Are you crazy?"

"You know damn well what I'm talking about." Intently he glared at the puzzled man, struggling to recall interviewing him.

"You're mistaken, mister."

"Just leave me alone," he snarled after he unlocked the door and climbed into the car. "Or you'll be sorry you ever messed with me."

"Whatever you say."

Disinterestedly he fidgeted with the radio dial, waiting for the startled man to leave, and as soon as he did Norris turned on the engine and released the emergency brake. He went only a few feet then stopped, as if not sure in which direction to proceed, and shut off the engine. A train whistle blared in the distance, an echo from his childhood, he thought, when he lived only a block and a half from some railroad tracks. Quickly he swerved around but could not see it then slumped back, pressing the heels of his palms against the steering wheel.

What if he was mistaken, he thought, what if the guy looking at his car wasn't the person who had called him the other week? The thought troubled him. Suddenly he wondered how many others he had offended with his prickly disposition, only a few he believed, but he could be wrong. He doubted it, but he could, and, with a faint sigh, leaned back and stared out the windshield, as if waiting for the caller to appear so he could apologize to him.

(C)opyright 2007 T.R. Healy All Rights Reserved

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