Milly’s Old Man
“This is my worst nightmare, Mildred, the bank foreclosing on the cabin. Can you believe this? Me, Mr. Perfect. They call me that, you know. The boys in the plant. Every day at work they’d say, There goes Mr. Perfect. Even though they whispered, I heard them. At the water-cooler, in the break room, even on the floor, sometimes when the machines were not so loud, I could hear them. Look at Karl, the man with the perfect life, the perfect wife. He has a cabin on the lake too. Did you know that? I want what Mr. Perfect has. I heard them say this. Mr. Perfect, what will they say about Mr. Perfect now?”
Mildred had a job and Karl didn’t. He’d had a job, a real nine to five with a suit and tie and paid holidays and weekends free where they’d take the boat to the lake to swim and ski and drink beer and sleep it off Sunday mornings in their own cabin. But that was years ago, three to be exact, and when Emerson’s small electric motor winding plant moved to Tampico Mexico their bills didn’t. Neither did Karl and Mildred, although she had been game. Karl was the one who put the kybosh to that. “No way we’re moving to Mexico, Mildred,” he’d said on the drive home from dinner with the plant manager.
During dinner, the plant manager had firmly stated. “I want my right-hand man with me in Mexico, Karl. There might be a raise. I can’t promise, but the boys upstairs they want you too.” That’s what he’d said. Karl cut his steak, chewed on it a bit, and said, “No.” Just like that, he gave the kybosh to Mexico.
Karl got a sales job at a new car dealership, but it didn’t stick. He couldn’t sell. He knew how to manufacture, but he did not know how to sell. He could make things but not sell them, but that’s all there was left in town. Sales.
“I feel like I’m cheating people, Milly,” he said after losing the dealership job. Middle of the morning he came home, loosened his tie, and cracked a beer, “I can’t talk folks into buying a new car when I know they don’t have the money. You buy on credit and you can’t pay – and then…,” he said.
“I know about credit and about - and then…too, Karl,” Mildred had said, “Remember the cabin and the boat? I do. A lifetime ago. The cabin and the boat and sleeping it off together under the covers. Those Sunday mornings, Karl. I miss those.”
“I do too. We’ll have them again. Used cars. I’ll sell used cars. I won’t feel so bad selling them. Folks need cars and they buy used ones with cash. I wouldn’t feel like I’m handing them a shovel to dig themselves a hole. I’ll sell used cars. You’ll see. We’ll be on solid ground in no time at all.”
But Karl could not sell cars, new, or used, selling cars was not a thing Karl excelled in doing.
“Not everyone’s a salesman, Dear,” Milly said freshening Karl’s coffee.
“No, but I can sell. I’m sure of it. I can do…”
“…anything. You can do anything you set your mind to. The perfect man I married. I know, but for now, I can work. To help out, I can work.”
Karl remembered his neighbor Bob. Bob the Butcher he called him. Everybody did. A big man that cut meat for a living. Good with a knife. Could cleave a hindquarter in nothing flat. Best chops in town. Always trimmed the fat. The old women loved him. Everybody did. Best market in town. Until the accident.
He remembered Bob’s wife, Joann, too. When she came to work in the plant, after the accident – to help out – until they got back on their feet- her the new girl in the office. The glossy sheen on her lips – he remembered – the click her heels made on the tile floor when she walked in the office. When she bent down, to place a paper, or retrieve one from his desk – he remembered that too. And the day she came in late to work. The snagged hose from running for the bus. The runner it made from her calf to her thigh, the slight tear like a sign on a perfect present that begged to be unwrapped.
Karl banged his fist on the table, spilling his coffee, “No wife of mine,” he said.
Mildred stood. Came to him. Rubbed his shoulders. Kissed his neck. The natural smell of her lingered with him when he closed his eyes. Still.
My little lamb to the wolves. Never.
He kissed her. “Hand me the paper, and let me look. Vacuum cleaners - door to door - that's where it's at,” he said.
“You’ll do fine, Milly. It’s only temporary, till I get back on my feet,” he says patting his wife on the knee.
“Like riding a bike,” he says.
“Not so much, Karl, “she says her mind drifting like smoke from her cigarette in the ashtray.
Karl rests his elbows on the table. “Sure, it is, Milly. You were the best typist in school. The cutest one too,” he added, winking at his wife. “And besides you took that shorthand class at the community college. That counts for something.”
“Yes, I can type and take dictation…”
“And make coffee, don’t forget to get the coffee right, to get on his good side.”
“Yes, typing, dictation, and coffee. I’ll be a regular girl Friday.”
“Not a regular girl Friday. Indispensable. You need to be indispensable. Gussy up a bit. You need to look professional. Not like a housewife. A modern professional office manager.”
“The ad in the paper says they’re looking for a private secretary, Karl. Not an office manager.”
“Either way. Makeup wouldn’t hurt. And that new blouse.”
“The white one. I don’t know, Karl. It’s awful provocative.”
“I know. Wear it with the skirt you wore to the Christmas party. He’ll like that. I’m sure. I do.”
She lit another cigarette, “but Karl,” she said.
There, there, he said trying to pick his words. He sat back in his chair, straightened his back, and cleared his throat. “Dress to impress, Mildred.” He shot his arms above his head as he said this.
“But he called me Milly, Karl. Milly, can you believe it? At the interview, he called me Milly. I introduced myself as Mildred – Mrs. Mildred…and all he did was pat me on the knee, grin real big, and say, “Welcome aboard, Milly.”
“Milly’s not such a bad thing, Mildred. There are plenty of other things he could call you that are far worse. I have been known to call you Milly on occasion.”
“That’s my point, Karl. You call me Milly.”
“Only on occasion…”
“Yes, on occasion, but still…”
“There was an ad today. In the paper. The classified section. For a driver. A bus driver, Karl. You’re a good driver, Karl. You could do that job.”
“A dead-end job. No advancement. A man can’t get anywhere with a job like that. All you do is drive around. Loop to loop. You can’t get ahead in a job like that. A going-nowhere job, that’s what it is. Is that what you think of me…a man for a dead-end job…is that what you think?”
“I think you haven’t even looked. I think you lie in bed all day or watch TV. I think on your best days you steal change from my purse and go to the Bucket and sit on a stool and drink beer.”
“Every day I look. The classifieds. Nothing, so, YES, on occasion I go to the Bucket. Keep my ears open, ask around, and I have a beer while doing so – it is an establishment that sells beer and I don’t want to give the impression of being a mooch. But, I do check the classifieds, every day I check…”
“Then why do I find the paper in the bushes. Every day, when I come home from work I find the paper where the boy throws them, and every day I pick it up and bring it in the house. Every day I do this. Except on weekends. Do you know why I don’t pick up the paper on weekends, Karl?”
“Of course, you don’t. Because I canceled the subscription on weekends. To pinch pennies.”
“I didn’t know.”
“Know this. That’s your beer money. When you’re on your stool at the Bucket, tell yourself…this is why my wife canceled the subscription to the weekend paper…so I can sit on this stool and drink a beer...”
“Why are you packing your heels? Flats are what you need on a retreat. Maybe just sneakers. Here, pack your sneakers. You wear sneakers with denim.
“Dress to impress, Karl. You taught me that, remember?”
“Could you just dress more like a housewife, Mildred?”
“But I’m not, am I? I’m a working woman and I work in an office and there are certain ways a woman that works in an office dress.”
“Not on a retreat, Mildred. Let’s not get in a beef. Mil…I’m just saying…”
“Furthermore, Karl, a woman that works in an office has to keep up appearances. No matter where you are. For the office, you know. You know all about keeping up appearances don’t you, Karl? Never know who you’re going to run into do you, Karl?”
“Get off the couch, Karl. Come upstairs while I unpack and I’ll tell you about the retreat.”
“I don’t want…”
“Well then, scoot over. I’ll tell you right here.”
“If you insist.”
“Well, what about the retreat? What was so great about the retreat?”
“Our old cabin. That’s what was so great about the retreat. The bank, after they took it back, turned it into a retreat. Can you imagine our old cabin a retreat for bank employees? And, conferences too. They hold conferences there. They knocked out a wall for a conference room and added a room, and an extra bath, only a half, but a second one. You need more than one bath at a retreat when it’s coed you know. The little bath has a shower. Oh, I wish you could have seen it, Karl. Maybe one day you’ll get to go. When we went into town for drinks Jim was discussing a family day in the spring. “Bring the kids and the little ladies up for a day of fun,” he said. We’ll even have a BBQ. He said that and he said we could take his boat out. He said I’d have to be the skipper, being a bank employee, not you, and the boat technically belonging to the bank. He took me out, Karl.”
“He took you out?”
“In the boat. He let me drive. Well, he was standing behind me and he did have his hands on the wheel too, but I was driving.”
“and he told me to keep the change, Mildred. He looked at my nametag, then at my face and he said, “I remember you. At the picnic for the kids and the little ladies. You’re Milly’s old man, aren’t you?’ That’s what he called me, Milly’s old man. And he told me to keep the change. Why was he even riding the bus I want to know? To gloat? I swear he thumbed his nose at me. The nerve of him. Why I ask was he riding the bus, my bus today?”
“His car was in the shop, Karl. He took a bus and it happened to be the one you drove. What’s so odd about that? Why does that make you so mad?”
“He calls you, Milly, Mildred. That’s why.”
“Only on occasion, Karl. Only on occasion.”