He smoked non-stop. He drank coffee non-stop. He headed-up leasing for the State of Washington. He was important to me, and I’d learned long ago that if you wanted to meet Hal, you met him in a coffee shop.
He was a generation older than I, and I enjoyed his company. He was articulate, smart, well-dressed and well-educated.
He’d lost a small fortune trading commodities early in his career, after which he’d found refuge with the state. Over the years, through numerous negotiations and deals, he’d learned the leasing business inside and out. And I learned a lot about it from Hal.
Hal had enjoyed a long ascent up the ladder in General Administration’s Real Estate Division. However, as often happens in large bureaucracies, what you know is sometimes less important than who you know, or, more accurately, whom you please … and Hal knew less about that than did “she.”
She was hired to direct the real estate division. The fact that she knew next to nothing about real estate somehow escaped the attention of the interview committee. They figured bankers were part of the real estate business which for the purposes of the interview committee was close enough … kind of like promoting a grocer to be an executive chef at a very large restaurant.
And that was it for Hal. He’d tried for the job, for the third time, but lost. That was his third and last strike … the last time he’d be seriously considered for any higher position with the state. His wealth of institutional knowledge and his years of hard work went up in smoke like the Lucky Strikes he sucked on endlessly. To say it was a difficult time for Hal would be felonious understatement.
A few months after his final pass-over, I met Hal downtown on a Monday morning for coffee. I saw him in his usual corner booth chatting with a waitress who had one hand leaning on the back of the booth and a glass coffee pot dangling from the other. He’d obviously been there awhile.
“Hi, Hal. Am I late?”
“Oh no, no. Not at all Joe, not at all. I’m early!” he replied with a half-laugh accompanied by a deep rattle from down in his blackened Lucky lungs.
“Here, grab a seat, have a coffee. Want a roll or something?”
“No thanks Hal, I’ve already eaten. So how’s it going?”
“In a few words, it’s ugly, no, I take that back, it’s nauseating,” he answered, bowed over his plate and flicking ashes down towards it.
He looked up, “When I get to the office first thing I do is puke in the wastepaper basket. Then I get the hell out.”
“Oh! Well, yeah, well, damn! That sucks! From what I hear it’s a friggin’ mess there! No one’s happy!”
“Yeah. I’m having a hard time with it. This new gal doesn’t know diddly-squat about real estate. Nada. Nothing. Zilch. Projects are bottlenecked and delayed. It’s crazy!” he said as he lit another Lucky.
“I don’t know Joe, I just don’t know.” He moved his head slowly from side to side.
I figured it was a good time to change the subject. “Hey, Hal, by the way, how’s your boy doing?”
“He’s in jail.”
“Oh Jesus!” I exclaimed. “Jesus Christ! What?”
“They arrested him Friday and I left him there for the weekend! Maybe it’ll teach him a lesson!”
He started to orate an oft-repeated story about a certain Lacey cop who had it in for his son. How he skipped over the kid’s drug dealing, misdemeanors and felonies I’ll never know. But I’d heard it many times before, so after listening for a respectable, but brief as possible period of time, I tried a diversionary tactic.
“How’s your wife doing Hal?” I asked compassionately as I knew her slightly. She worked in a Lacey store. “How’s she coping?”
“She left me!” he said unemotionally. “Said she’d had it. She packed up her stuff and left yesterday.”
“Oh good God, Hal! I mean, good God!” I found myself almost shouting.
It took me a second or two to digest all of this. This was three of life’s big strikes! His marriage, his only child and his job. Jesus!
I sat immobile staring at Hal as if he were a painting. My eyes must have been as big as eggs. I was shocked, stunned and absolutely speechless.
I looked at Hal. I can’t say I saw hurt in his eyes. I saw something more akin to defiance … the look of a man who knows he’s got a lot of unpleasant work to do. Years more of reporting to incompetent superiors. Years more of living alone. Years more until retirement. And then what? He had no hobbies or sports, only work. Then what?
Hal sat as if hypnotized staring back at me, waiting for me to say something. That’s when a divine wind, or its close relative, came whispering to me … “Hal, what church do you go to?”
I could think of nothing else. It’s not like I’m an evangelist or someone who promotes church attendance. To the contrary, that was something that I never thought I’d hear myself say … but I could think of nothing else. Like I said, divine wind.
“Church?” he said with another Lucky rattle from the depths “Christ, I haven’t been to church in a long, long time Joe …” he said meditatively.
After a time he looked up and said, “Well I guess it couldn’t hurt, could it? Nope, it sure couldn’t hurt.”
Later I found out that Hal had gone back to church. He’d re-joined the Presbyterians. Although his job didn’t change, his wife didn’t come back and his son kept sliding into meaningless oblivion, he told me that the church had helped him come to terms with his troubles and with all those other things that he or we can’t do a damned thing about.
It gave him something as close to family as you can get with strangers. No longer was it Hal against all comers … it was Hal and family against all comers!
That was pretty special for Hal and it got him through countless nauseous mornings all the way to retirement.
Sadly, not long after he retired, death visited Hal. He had a big funeral. He would have liked that, especially if his son had made it.
Now whenever I think back to that disquieting and disarming coffee with Hal, I remember an old saying that best describes it … “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and die with their song still inside them.”
And, whether Christian or no, I whisper a prayer for Hal whenever I think of him. I hope he’s found peace and rest … and maybe that he’s singing his song loud and clear.
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