Clouds

Rodney Square in Downtown Wilmington, 2006

[preface:  I have no experience working in the credit industry, and this story is entirely fictional.]

The move from Manhattan to Wilmington Delaware was not a pleasant one for Lou.

He knew of nobody in the area, and being given his own office as head of analysis provided an extra barrier between him and his coworkers. Hiring outside the company and not promoting from inside is never popular among lower level employees, so Lou was placed with a social disadvantage on day one.  This was not helped by the fact that 95 percent of the people in the area worked in the credit industry, which made for a fairly homogenous social scene equally impenetrable everywhere.  The only person he spoke with was his secretary, Tracy, who spent the day reading magazines on the internet.  It was a Thursday morning in early fall when Lou came to work without his umbrella.

“Hello Tracy?”

“Hello Mr. Hungeford.  You have a message from Ken Lipman about something on credit thresholds and race collated democracy?”

Lou couldn’t help but laugh, “Thankyou Tracy.  That’s race correlated demography.  Yes, I’ll return his call immediately.  Anything else?”

“No Mr. Hungeford.  Would you like some coffee this morning?”

“No thankyou Tracy.  I had some.”  Lou continued into his office and shut the door behind him.  His office was beautiful.  It was a short walk from the elevators on the 10th floor of a highrise with a clear view of Rodney Square.  His desk was walnut with the standard Newton’s cradle and Bloomberg terminal.

Newton's Cradle

He was in no mood to return Ken Lipman’s phone call on how to exploit racism for money.  Instead he proceeded to spy on Tracy through a crack in the blinds on his indoor window.  This was not technically an abuse of the window, whose main function was allowing him to watch the other employees in the data Analysis department.  It appeared Tracy was reading something on Carla Brune in some internet magazine.  This did not interest Lou, so he proceeded to admire her legs.  Thighs, soft and smooth with a healthy shine, and calves slender and elegant like French silver.  For five seconds Lou was happy until the inevitable self-evaluation of what he was doing killed this joy.

Why was it that he must always be so isolated despite being feet away from people?  He had studied hard during college and made no friends.  He then worked at J & F. Mutual as an actuary and slowly fostered a lunch group, although he never earned the status of friend .  His superiors always found him obedient yet lacking ambition, so when J & F. Mutual was purchased by T.P. Stanley his superiors were cut and Lou was promoted to head the department.  Unfortunately TP Stanley liquidated Lou’s old office in Manhattan, and Lou was forced to move to Wilmington Delaware, where he returned to loneliness.  His old lunch group was cut during the acquisition.  And thus Lou Hungeford found himself stocking his secretary’s legs from behind blinds in his luxurious office when his phone rang.

He scrambled to his desk but tripped over his couch in the process.  The phone continued to ring.  From the carpet he reached up to his desk and pressed speaker.

“Yes Tracy?”

“Hi Mr. Hungeford.  Ken Lipman is waiting.  He says you agreed to meet yesterday?”

“Ah yes.  Thankyou Tracy, send him in.”

Ken entered.  He was a tall handsome dark-haired Caucasian man, resembling 85 percent of the men at TP Stanley.

“Thankyou for meeting me Lou.”  Ken put out his hand and they shook.

“Of course, of course Ken.  Yes, I had heard you had some ideas on how to put these numbers into policy.  I am very interested.”  This was a lie, the idea bored Lou, as did most of T.P. Stanley recently.

“Wonderful.  So I could give you the big picture over lunch if you like, or I could write-up a detailed report and get it to you tomorrow.” said Ken.

The idea of not eating lunch alone enticed Lou.  “Oh, let’s do both please.  Did you have a lunch spot in mind?”

“Sure, I usually just go to the diner across the street with the other guys, but we can go wherever you usually go.”

Lou usually ate lunch alone in his office, too afraid of being caught eating along out in public.  “I’ve never been to the Diner, let’s do that.”

Then a dance-beat sounded from Ken’s hip.  He took out his cell phone.  “Hello?  Ken Lipman…  Sure…  I’m with my manager at the moment can it wait?…  Okay…  Okay I’ll be right there.”  he hung up his phone and turned to Lou.  “I’m sorry Lou.  I need to pickup my daughter from school.  They get out early today due to a budget cut, and it’s before my wife gets off her shift.”

“Oh, no problem, we can meet tomorrow.  Go fetch your daughter.” siad Lou, successfully vailing his disappointment

Ken opened the door and began walking backwards past Tracy “Sorry about that sir.  We’ll do lunch tomorrow.”  Ken walked backwards into the elevator across the hall.  “Thankyou Mr.  Hungeford.  I’ll see you tomorrow.”  The doors shut and he was gone, Lou’s first lunch with another employee stolen by a little girl.

Tracy had moved on to reading an article on bottled water.  It irritated Lou that there was a divine conspiracy to keep him isolated.  Instead of falling into his regularly scheduled depression he was angry this time.

“Tracy?”

Tracy turned away from her computer monitor to look Lou in the face.  “Yes Mr. Hungeford.”

“Have you had lunch?”

“No.  But I brought lunch.  I usually eat here at the desk.”

“Let me buy you something across the street.”

“Sure!”

Lou was happy with Tracy’s enthusiasm, although the source of her approval was obscured by their rank differential.  This obscurity became more apparent during the walk to the Diner.  Tracy hesitated to start a conversation because she was trying to evoke professionalism in front of her boss, but did not know how to do that. Lou, bad a perpetual loss for words and was unfit for the social expectations of his rank.

When they arrived at the diner they were seated at a table by a window viewing the stone ground of Rodney Square.  Lou finally thought of an opening.

“So where do you come from Tracy?”

“I’m from Arizona.  Have you heard of Flagstaff?”

“No.”  Lou was just happy they were finally talking.

“That’s okay.  Most people know it from touring.  It’s really close to Route 66 and the Grand Canyon.”

“Oh.  I love that area.  The Grand Canyon.  Beautiful.  Do you miss it?”

“Yes, sometimes.”

“How did you end up in Wilmington?”

“Oh, well I’m a student at Delaware College of Art.  I was trying to get in Pratt in New York City, but they were starting this new program.  I was rejected from Pratt, but they forwards my application and offered me a place here at Delaware College.”

“New York City, that’s my old stomping ground.”  Lou was thrilled every time he got to mention he was from New York City, it automatically made him more interesting.

“Oh, I’ve never been.  It sounds like the greatest place on earth though.” replied Tracy.

“Oh it is.  I miss it so much.  Every night I would go out with friends because the city never slept.”  This was a gross exaggeration.  Lou had gone out a total of 4 times with acquaintances.

“I wish I could know.”  replied Tracy.  Then the waiter came.  Tracy ordered a Salad nicoise and Lou ordered a Turkey melt with a Coke.

“I’m, sorry I shouldn’t talk about New York if you’ve never experienced.  I just suggest everybody visit at least once.”

“Oh no.  I didn’t feel bad about talking about Flagstaff.”

“Do you miss flagstaff?”

“Yes.  Sometimes.  Not the people so much, but I miss Flagstaff.”

“What about it.”

“Everything.  Just the feel.  I miss the clouds.”

Lou laughed.  “What’s wrong with the clouds here?  We got plenty of clouds.”

“The clouds here are different.  More mundane.”

“Oh you mean they aren’t storm clouds.” said Lou.

Tracy’s eyes lit up.  Lou had hit upon something.  “Yes.  Well clouds in Arizona are like works of art.  They are tall and godlike.” said Tracy.

“But the ones here are more flat.  I guess that has something to do with the air.” responded Lou, trying to quickly come up with an explanation of seeming intelligence.

“I think it has something to do with the dry air from the North and wet air from the South.  Crazy Arizona clouds are created in from crazy Arizona moisture, pressure, and temperature differences.”

Lou was surprised.  Her knowledge of clouds and natural science was not revealed in the office.  “What’s your interest in clouds anyway?”

“I don’t know.  They are just so spontaneous.  They have interesting behavior.”

“I guess I can see that.  You mean the butterfly effect, and why it’s hard to be a weatherman.”

“Yeah.  And there are all these internal dynamics that we don’t see.  You know, like the circumstances before the storm.”

“I have no idea.  This is far outside by field of knowledge Tracy.  You’ll have to explain.”

“There’s not much to explain, those science guys don’t really know yet.  But the theory is that snowflakes form in the cloud randomly.  If a snowflake grows to the right size it makes it really easy for water to grasp it and go from gas to liquid.  This forms rain.  The lightening from an electric charge on the cloud, but nobody quite understands that yet.  But they think rain starts with snowflakes.”

Lou was awestruck.  “And all those snowflakes are unique.  I wonder if that complicates things.”

“Well, I don’t know.  If every snowflake is unique then they aren’t all that unique are they.”

“So whats wrong with the clouds here?  It storms all the time.”

“Nothings wrong.  I just miss home.”

“I guess the clouds in Arizona are probably more spontaneous.  It’s fairly easy to see when a storm is coming around here.”

“. Storm clouds are precious since they are inherently self destructive. Delaware clouds just lack character.  Everything here does compared to Flagstaff.”

“I’d say the same with respect to my origins.  Maybe everybody says this with respect to their own origins.” replied Lou, proud to say something with an aura of depth.

“No I don’t think it’s subjective.  This place is awful.”

This statement rang true with Lou and made a fire burn inside him.  He interpreted this feeling as the canonical signature of “falling in Love”.  In response he made a calculated decision to follow his compulsions.

“Tracy.  Lets leave here.”

“But they just took our order.  I think the chef is making our food by now.”

“No I mean lets leave the company.  I have connections in New York.”

“Why would I do that I just met you!”

“You want to be an artist right?  I’ll find another job with my old connections.  I could support your art and we could live in the Village.”

“Are you serious?”

“Yes I’m dead serious Tracy.”

“Mr.  Hungeford.  I don’t even call you by your first name.”

“You should have been calling me Lou a long time ago.  What do you say?”

“Can I think about it?”

Lou thought about allowing Tracy time to think, then he decided to continue acting compulsively,

“No.  I need you to tell me here and now.  I’m going to purchase a ticket to JFK as soon as we return to the office.”

Tracy was hesitant to respond, but wasn’t so ready to turn him down.  She was enticed.  However, Lou was not the first superior to ask her to move away with them.  She knew she was a symbol of escape for middle-aged men stuck in bad carrier decisions.  Nonetheless it was fun for her, and she felt like it made the men happy so it seemed silly to decline the offer.  She weighed the pros and cons until her salad nicoise arrived.  Lou sat expectantly across  leaving his sandwich untouched.

“Okay.  Lets do it.”  said Tracy.

“Oh my God!  This is the most excited I’ve been in years!”  said Lou, who raised his glass.  Tracy clanged hers against his and the deal was sealed.

The two returned to the office with a glow out of place among wood paneled walls and econocarpet surrounded by employees hit with afternoon exhaustion.  Phones rang regularly and quiet chitchat continued in the break room as usual, but Lou did not feel like the outcast that he had been hours before.  Lou returned to his office to read the report sent by Ken Lipman and prepare his getaway while Tracy returned to do her job of reading gossip on the internet.  5pm came and went.  Lou arranged for a car to pick up Tracy at 6am first and then him on the way to the airport tomorrow morning.

“This is so wonderful!  Are you leaving now.”  said Tracy.

“No I think I’m going to finish a few things in preparation for our departure.” said Lou.

“Okay Lou.  We’ll I think this is going to be a great adventure.”  She then leaned in and tried to kiss Lou on the cheek.  However Lou was unfamiliar with close contact and dodged her.

“Sorry Tracy.  I got confused.”

“It’s okay.  I’ll see you tomorrow.”  Tracy walked backwards into the elevator and let the doors close in front of her.  Lou returned to his office and poured himself a glass of water.  His elation was already starting to wear off.  Something was suspicious about that diner.  He remembered that it was full of older guys talking to younger women.  Perhaps he was not so spontaneous and compulsive.  Maybe this was part of the life-cycle, as if all men and women enter a phase where they make plans of escape in a diner on Rodney square.

Perhaps they were as unique as snowflakes.  Part of a cloud on the verge of a storm.  An endemic phenomena among the most recent generation of the middle class.  As an actuary Lou could not help but think of the impacts this would have on the numbers.  An increasing unemployment in New York with a decreasing one in Delaware, a rise revenue for companies that cater to young women, a rise in alimony payments.  Lou contemplated these impacts further as he walked to the roof of the building with his glass of water.

On the roof he could see the big dipper half obscured by moonlit clouds.  Certainly the weather in Delaware is different from the weather in Arizona, but the impact that has on the clouds was slightly beyond his field of knowledge.  From photographs it appeared that Arizona had taller Cumulus clouds, and Delaware was more calm and dominantly stratus.  Lou didn’t return to his apartment that night.  He remained on the roof of the TP Stanley building watching the night sky evolve.  When the sun rose Lou didn’t see it, as the sky was covered a layer of grey clouds.  It began to rain and he returned to his office to get his umbrella.   The cleaning crew was just starting to attend to the carpets.  This was the first time Lou had ever seen the cleaning crew, and it was a relief to confirm the existence of people who were not business school and statistics graduates.  He decided he was not willing to follow through with the escape plan to New York.  He would call Tracy tell her he changed his mind.  He was mildly worried about her reaction but he didn’t have the suppression of thought to go through with a plan that he knew would end badly, best stick with his current trajectory which only end lonely.  Unfortunately 6am had already passed and the car that Lou sent to pick up Tracy was already en route to the airport with Tracy in the back seat, Lou or no.  Lou figured this out when Tracy didn’t answer her phone and then didn’t show up to work promptly at 8am as she usually did.  She would land in JFK and make it to Manhattan before lunchtime.

Not all people can be storm clouds.  In fact most can’t.  Nonetheless Lou sensed an optimism that he didn’t have before.  He wanted to let his positive feelings flow with a walk outside.  Unfortunately he had forgotten to bring his umbrella to work with him yesterday.  Lou decided to skip work and walk in the rain.

END

shot by Arun Kulshreshtha, June 14 2006
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